4 Steps to Reducing Aviation’s Carbon Footprint

We live in an increasingly hyper-mobile society with over three billion passengers being carried by the world’s airlines in 2013, and an estimated 31% growth in passenger demand by 2017.  This accounts for hundreds of millions of tonnes in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, greatly impacting global warming, climate change, and ultimately the sustainability of life on this wonderful planet we call home.

It’s more important than ever in the Transportation sector to find innovative ways to decrease our carbon footprint and endeavour to become a low carbon economy.  While efforts have been made in some areas, the aviation industry has been slower to implement policies and regulations to control carbon emissions.

Worldwide flights in 2013 were responsible for 705 million tonnes of CO2, which accounts for 2 percent of all carbon emissions globally.   According to the EU’s Climate Action Plan, the world was on track to see emissions continue to grow 70 percent over 2005 levels by 2020 “even if fuel efficiency improves by 2 percent per year”.  But over the last five years we’ve begun to see a shift, predominantly in areas of rapid growth like Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, as we begin to feel the first real effects of our changing environment.

So what actions can the aviation industry take to solve for carbon pollution?  Here are four key steps to cutting CO2 emissions in the air:

Biofuels were once our principal fuel source and have existed since man learned to make fire.  Yes, we’re talking about wood, used by early civilizations for cooking and heating.  In the 19th and early 20th century the first cars ran on ethanol, turpentine, and even vegetable oil.  Today sustainable biofuels are being produced by organizations like Boeing using “renewable resources that do not compete with food crops for land or water.”

The Air Transport Action Group reports that “If commercial aviation were to get 6% of its fuel supply from biofuel by 2020, this would reduce its overall carbon footprint by 5%.”


When it comes down to it, the simplest way to reduce emissions is to reduce the amount of time planes spend in the air.  Advanced communication systems, navigation, surveillance, and improved air traffic management tactics such as landings using continuous decent, can all drastically decrease unnecessary flight time.

Other operational efficiencies include fuel conservation strategies such as single-engine taxiing, minimizing aircraft auxiliary power unit use, and holding aircrafts at the gate during extended delays.

Single-engine taxiing can decrease ground fuel burn up to 40 percent and ground emissions by up to 30 percent.

According to Aviation Benefits Beyond Borders, flights can save at least 150 kg of CO2 per flight by landing using a continuous descent into an airport.

Improvements in technology include innovations in engine efficiency, the use of lightweight materials to decrease aircraft weight, and continuous design improvements to increase aircraft aerodynamics.

In addition, using software systems to track Sustainability Performance Indicators will allow organizations to report on and analyze sustainability data to form key baselines for continuous improvement, proactively prevent and mitigate risk, and easily measure KPI performance.

Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner used 20 percent less fuel per mile than other similar-sized aircrafts in their fleet, primarily thanks to improved aerodynamics and the use of lightweight composite materials.

The EU’s aviation directive was one of the first initiatives to take a stab at reducing carbon pollution through capped emission allowances.  To ensure that these programs are manageable, a phased approach is recommended mandating airlines to reduce their emissions by a specific amount over a set course of time.  Essentially introducing regulated caps and allowances drives airlines and airports to actively participate in the above three steps to avoid the hefty fines associated with non-compliance.

The first of these issued to a non-EU airline was implemented in May 2015 – the airline incurred some €1.4 million in fines by a regional Belgian government.

These are just some of the ways that airlines and airports around the world are looking to play their part in the battle against greenhouse gases to achieve sustainability in the aviation industry.  Only time will tell if a 70 – 80 percent reduction can be achieved by 2050, but one thing is for certain – we all need to play our part in protecting the future of the planet or 75 years from now, we’ll all be living on Mars!

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