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Published on December 18th, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans


Eco Friendly Air Travel of the Future

The airline industry’s rapid growth over the last several years has made long-distance travel more accessible to us now than in the past.  The downside is that the more we travel, the more we increase our carbon footprint. 

The next time you plan a vacation that involves boarding a plane, consider what you can do to minimize the impact of your travel on the planet.  Implementing even small changes will, in turn, also minimize your impact on economies and societies around the world.

Airplane travel utilizes a massive amount of fossil fuels on an annual basis.  Given the climate change crisis, non-eco-friendly air travel raises a red flag, especially since the level of emissions that planes release into the atmosphere is significantly higher than those released by ground vehicles (all thanks to the longer distances and high altitudes).  According to the Greenpeace organization, flying causes ten times more damage to the environment than taking a train!  Let’s look at how a flight creates a carbon footprint, and your options for transforming your air travel into green air travel.

How Does Air Travel Create a Carbon Footprint?

Every time the engine of an aircraft is operated, it burns fossil fuels for energy, which causes a release of carbon dioxide intoPassenger Plane the atmosphere.  According to research done by CNN’s Paul Sussman, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has calculated that the aviation industry is responsible for releasing approximately 0.55 billion tons of CO2 pollution annually—an amount that equates to about 2% of total global carbon emissions.  And worse still, the levels of other greenhouse gases produced by airline travel are increasing too.  Susser tells us that "IPCC scientists have estimated that greenhouse gas pollution from high-flying jets is up to four times more damaging to the environment than identical levels of pollution emitted at ground level."

…the aviation industry is responsible for releasing approximately 0.55 billion tons of CO2 pollution annually—an amount that equates to about 2% of total global carbon emissions.

Airlines Go Green with Carbon Offsetting

As the debate over global warming heats up, a number of airlines are beginning to recognize the alarming effects of their operations, and are focusing on how they can help to improve the situation.

Within the last couple of years, British Airways has adopted measures to increase fuel efficiency and reduce carbon emissions by running its aircraft engines less than before.  One remarkably simple step British Airways has taken is reducing the running time of auxiliary power units that provide ground services for aircraft.  Air traffic management has also come under the radar for similar issues in airports all over the world.  More and more, you will find that airlines are taking less time to queue up for take-offs and landing, processes which both consume large amounts of fuel.

Some airlines have introduced the concept of carbon offsetting—an initiative that encourages passengers to pay a voluntary surcharge for flights.  The income from the surcharge finances green projects such as reforestation, renewable energy development, energy efficiency projects, and other initiatives designed to help to balance out the environmental impact of airborne journeys.  British Airways has partnered with eco-centered company Climate Care to offset passenger emissions for air travel.  Other airlines including Air Canada, Cathay Pacific, Delta, SAS, and Virgin Blue have also tagged 2007 as a year to initiate carbon offsetting programs.

One noted hiccup in the offsetting process is that currently, there is no clear-cut way of knowing whether or not offsets are put to use for their promised purpose.  Recently, offset verification programs have emerged with the intent of setting a "gold-standard" certification to ensure that offsets are actually implemented—keep an eye out for the latest updates.

Research and Development for Eco-friendly Aircraft

Even though airlines are taking steps to green the air travel industry, the real culprit here is still the output of carbon-emitting fossil fuels that aircrafts rely on for energy.  Aircraft manufacturers are demonstrating a commitment to solving this problem—both Boeing and Airbus are interested in working with British carrier easyJet to produce a new design that has garnered the nickname "ecoJet."  This design promotes maximum fuel-efficiency by minimal aerodynamic resistance and is similar to projects that Boeing and Airbus envision as the future of mass air travel.

Aerospace engineers are examining various technological innovations to accomplish these cleaner, greener flights.  Sussman has described a few of these:

  • Laminar flow control.  The air that immediately surrounds the body of an airplane when it is flying suffers a great deal of disturbance.  This increases friction between the plane and the surrounding air, which in turn leads to higher fuel consumption.  The aim is to reduce the friction and thereby lessen the plane’s drag.
  • Uses of composite materials.  Aerospace engineers are now looking at using composite materials to build aircraft.  The logic is that using such materials will make for a lighter, and therefore more fuel efficient aircraft.

Richard Branson, the CEO of Virgin Atlantic Airways pledged last year to spend £ 1.5 billion to research clean fuel sources over the next ten years.  Branson has announced a partnership with Boeing and engine maker GE to develop biofuels that can be used in commercial aircraft.  Branson aims to test biofuel sources including soy, newspaper and vegetables in Boeing aircraft by as early as the end of 2008, and hopes to have Virgin Atlantic operate aircraft with green fuel within the next two years.

Reducing Your Carbon Footprint

Front Plane PropWhile many airlines are setting praiseworthy goals for CO2 emissions reduction, we should not be limited by relying purely on the industry for green air travel.  It is always a good idea to consider some grass roots measures that we can put into effect ourselves.  Though carbon offsetting for air travel is now available to us, the best thing that we can do is reduce our use of fossil fuels as much as possible by restricting our travel and utilizing travel options that pose the least environmental damage.  Think about reducing the number of plane trips you take, especially when it comes to short-distance travel.

Since communication is hardly an issue in our society given the powers of internet technology, consider holding business meetings electronically or arranging a video conference if face-to-face interaction is preferable.  When it comes to vacations, try eco-friendly outings close to home.  If plane travel is unavoidable, consider available offsetting options to lower your travel emissions for a smaller environmental impact.  Web sites like and have "calculators" that will determine your atmospheric footprint and how you can offset it.

Article Contributors: Reenita Malhotra Hora 

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