How the Rise in Carbon Consciousness Is Transforming the Air Travel Industry [Apex, 28/01/20]
Pledges to curb carbon have been made, investments in electrification are on the rise and viable alternative fuels are, at last, in the pipeline. But activists, scientists and even airline executives worry that efforts to decarbonize the commercial aviation industry remain at odds with some of its long-standing practices.
Until 2019, “Greta” was the name of an old Hollywood star, a contemporary indie writer-director with a feminist edge or maybe just that of a distant German relative. Now, the name is plastered on protest paraphernalia, entering the lexicon of world leaders and being invoked as more than just a proper noun – when placed before “effect,” it denotes the massive wave of response a 17-year-old Swedish climate change activist has elicited, from peers to politicians.
Some who once boasted about weekends spent city-hopping are now marching to the tune of Greta Thunberg, who famously sailed across the Atlantic on a two-week journey to attend a United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York to avoid the carbon emissions caused by flying. Her voyage drew attention to a new movement, dubbed flygskam (a Swedish neologism for “flight shaming”), aimed at rousing guilt among consumers for their aviation-related carbon
footprint, which accounts for about 2.5 percent of global emissions.
“The news stories tell it all: Air travel is now high on the agenda.” — Scott Cohen, University of Surrey
Scott Cohen, professor of tourism and transport at the University of Surrey, has been studying attitudes toward commercial aviation over the past 10 years and says the public has undergone a seismic shift with Thunberg and the associated Extinction Rebellion (a non-violent climate change crusade). “The news stories tell it all: Air travel is now high on the agenda. Many of us have been looking at the environmental impact of aviation for a decade, but it was left out of the mainstream discussion until now.”
To be sure, airlines have been making sustainability gains for far longer than just a year. As IATA CEO Alexandre de Juniac explains in a press release, carbon emissions from the average airline passenger journey are about half of what they were in 1990, and, in 2008, the industry committed to capping net emissions at 2020 levels and halving them by 2050. APEX/IFSA CEO Dr. Joe Leader cites similar figures, adding that, “If every other industry had been as environmentally focused on reducing fuel utilization per person as aviation, then we likely would not have a global warming crisis today.”
“I quite like Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg for having brought a real focus to the issue – a focus on the fact that we are not doing enough at the speed we should be.” — Sir Tim Clark, Emirates
These efforts, however, are eclipsed by the exponential growth in air travel, projected to double over the next 20 years and buoyed by the boom in low-cost carriers (LCCs) and surge in demand from emerging markets. Even airline executives like Sir Tim Clark can admit, “I quite like Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg for having brought a real focus to the issue – a focus on the fact that we are not doing enough at the speed we should be. We really need this kind of thing to force us to make decisions.”
In Sweden, where flygskam was born, it has already served as a catalyst for change. The country’s airports saw a nine-percent drop in domestic flights, and its flag carrier a two-percent downturn in traffic compared to 2018. SAS has since taken steps to appeal to wary flyers, including eliminating its duty-free program, introducing biofuel purchasing to passengers and taking delivery of the more fuel-efficient next-generation Airbus A350. Pressures may be higher in Europe, but rippling media headlines, social media shares and climate marches show that carbon consciousness has spread, and perceptions of flying are changing in response. Many believe the industry must, too.
When KLM launched its “Fly Responsibly” campaign in June, with a video encouraging travelers to ask themselves if they could replace face-to-face meetings with videoconferencing and if they could take the train instead of the plane, confusion set in: Why would an airline ask travelers to stop doing that very thing on which its existence is predicated?
The airline at the time was celebrating its centenary but also plotting its next hundred years. “We owe it to the next generations to find solutions for the next century,” says KLM’s sustainability manager, Esmée van Veen. “We have only one planet, and when it comes to the future of sustainable aviation, the expectations are sky-high. No one wins in a world that loses.”
The video was a harbinger for a series of sustainability measures that followed, including the introduction of biofuel for flights out of Schiphol Airport, a robust fleet renewal plan for improved fuel efficiency and a much-lauded pivot to ground transportation. As of March 29, one of KLM’s five daily flights between Amsterdam and Brussels will be replaced by a 93-minute high-speed Thalys train service, with plans to do the same with routes to London, Berlin, Paris and Düsseldorf. The airline says replacing the Amsterdam–Brussels flight will yield 3.2 metric tons of CO₂ savings per flight, and 15,500 per year.
“We have only one planet, and when it comes to the future of sustainable aviation, the expectations are sky-high. No one wins in a world that loses.” — Esmée van Veen, KLM
Turning to high-speed rail is an astute move, especially in Europe where extensive infrastructure supports it, says Swedish academic Stefan Gössling, an expert in sustainable tourism who spoke with a mixture of optimism and apprehension about the industry’s future. “It shouldn’t matter to airlines where they earn their money in the transport system; the important thing is that we have a transport system that is functional,” he says. “The question is, how can we get airline CEOs to consider becoming engaged in different transport modes so that when we are building a high-speed railway system that takes capacity away from them, they don’t feel like they’re losing out?” Dr. Leader calls KLM’s initiative and similar integrations with bus networks in the US “beginning steps,” adding that, “Over the next decade, airlines will tie into end-to-end journey management. This will include every new mode of efficient transportation imaginable.”
Short-haul flights are logical targets for replacement, especially since they have been criticized for their disproportionately high carbon footprint. Takeoff is the most energy-intensive part of the journey, and when a journey is short it can make up as much as 25 percent of fuel consumption. Since aircraft become more fuel efficient while cruising, longer journeys are generally more fuel efficient per mile traveled.
“Airlines will have to think carefully about how to construct those messages to avoid their being perceived as greenwashing.” — Stefan Gössling, Swedish academic