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Alternative Fuel and Transportation

Published on December 23rd, 2009 | by Scott James

Carbon Reduction: What Airlines Are Doing About Emissions

In the world of carbon emissions and travel, nothing comes close to airline travel.
The average emissions for a flight from L.A. to New York is 1.73 metric tons of CO2.
Drive the same trip and you emit around 3000 lbs. of CO2. According to the EPA, an average automobile logs 5.23 metric tons of CO2 in a year- an airline can trump that in one flight. Of course it will be amazing when every city starts shifting from cars to bikes, but since we can’t bike through the sky, how are we going to address emissions concerns in the air?

Photo Credit: davipt How will the airline industry address carbon emissions?

How will the airline industry address carbon emissions?

Airlines are embracing a limited role in managing their carbon footprint over the past decade, from offering carbon offsets for flights to trying out biofuels and, most recently, speaking out about imminent government policies.

Carbon Take Off

In 2007 many airlines began offering carbon offset options for flights, and online carbon emissions calculators began springing up. While there has been some uptake in this industry, the economic and financial crisis made it hard to get people to voluntarily pay more for something that was already expensive. And there has been considerable debate whether carbon offsets are of any use at all, as they do not reduce emissions and work as an emissions accounting trick.

Probably the largest and most inspiring use of carbon offsets is by the Maldives. As part of their effort to become a carbon neutral country, the Maldives are planning to voluntarily join the EU carbon trading scheme and offset all international flights to and from the capital city of Malé. Depending on the outcome in Copenhagen and how it affects industries around the world, carbon schemes could become much more ubiquitous.

Growing Bio-fuel Use
Airlines are also increasingly looking into biofuels as a way to use less petroleum fuels. A group of 15 airlines that fly out of the Sea-Tac airport recently signed a joint agreement to utilize fuel made from canolina, a plant related to canola, created by AltAir Fuels in Seattle. The deal is projected to save 14 billion pounds of CO2 emissions over the next decade.

Sir Richard Branson showed his leadership in the airline industry when Virgin Atlantic flew the first airline flight to use biofuel from Heathrow to Amsterdam in 2008. While many environmental groups thought it was more PR than progress as only 5% of the fuel was actually biofuel (one of the four engines ran on an 80/20 mix of conventional/ biofuel), Branson compared the flight to the first steps of a baby and pointed to the opening of possibilities:

“What we’re proving today is that biofuel can be used for a plane. Two years ago, people said it was absolutely impossible.” –Richard Branson, President Virgin Atlantic

How to Govern the Air
And now Branson, who has consistently been a savvy business-person and innovator in the airline industry (in addition to being first on biofuel, Virgin was the first to put those TV’s on the back of the seat in front of you), is using his public status and PR savvy to get a message out to the government about how to approach carbon emissions reduction: in essence, he wants goals not penalties: targets not taxes.

I take his basic message as behaviorist- goals, not penalties, should lead the way for the airline industry.

“The airline industry wants to see targets set [in Copenhagen]… so that we know where we stand and we can get on with it and make sure this world is back on track again. If the governments do not set those targets, then the industries need to get together and set the targets themselves. The problem with a tax is where does the money go? And if you strip money from the airlines, then they will have less to invest in new planes and new technology,” said Branson.

Branson’s point seems similar to his framing of the biofuel use- he prefers doing things in steps forward rather than focusing on the problems we are trying to phase out.

“Once we’ve got targets set, we’ll go out and try to meet them, and I think we will be able to meet them without it costing the industry a lot of money,” he said.

It is exciting to see that in just a few years the industry has moved from no action to far beyond carbon offsets, embracing biofuels and raising a hand to clear the air as part of the global effort.




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About the Author

Scott James lives and plays in San Francisco, enjoying good coffee, innovative minds and challenging conversation.



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