We Haven’t Solved Flying’s Carbon Problem

Flying produces about 2% of global carbon emissions. Despite articles implying the possibility of sustainable flight, there’s currently no viable solution to flying without fossil fuels.

So what are airlines doing now that social pressure is increasing to address flying’s unsustainability?

Strategies so far:

  • Use biofuels
  • Increase efficiency
  • Shift responsibility from airlines to consumers
  • Offset emissions

Biofuels are plant-based fuel to power aircraft. Biofuels exist, but making them produces carbon emissions from agriculture, so they’re not carbon-free. If biofuel demand increases, more land could be converted to agriculture, and land conversion can also increase carbon emissions through deforestation, draining or burning peatlands, and releasing carbon stored in the soil.

Efficiency increases aim to provide the same aviation service while using less fuel. Airplane manufacturers often use efficiency gains as a key selling point for new aircraft. Airlines tout efficiency gains when portraying themselves as becoming more sustainable. However, increasing flight demand leads to more flights, so more efficient planes can still produce more carbon pollution than in previous years. Absolute carbon emissions is what matters to the climate, not efficiency.

Strategies to shift responsibility for aviation’s carbon problem to consumers focus on consumer purchasing and travel behavior. Consumers are encouraged to purchase tickets from airlines that use biofuel blends, reduce waste by bringing snacks and water bottles, or reuse the cup provided by the airline. If the problem is carbon emissions from flight, it’s hard to see how theses consumer-actions matter. If the problem is the perception of airline sustainability, it’s easier to understand why airlines are adopting responsibility strategies.

Rather than reducing aviation emissions, some airlines are claiming to cancel out their emissions by paying others to remove carbon from the atmosphere through carbon offsets. Consumers can purchase carbon offsets for specific trips from a variety of offset providers. Offset providers typically claim to direct the funds to carbon reduction practices like reforestation or regenerative agriculture. However, there’s no oversight of carbon offsets and little verification that the money paid to offset providers causes carbon to be removed from the atmosphere.

The current lack of a viable solution to aviation’s carbon emissions suggests airlines will continue promoting efficiency, consumer-responsibility, and offsets. The centrality of flight to wealthy lifestyles and culture suggests the wealthy will continue to accept flight’s carbon emissions rather than enact regulation to eliminate emissions from aviation.