Published 2 years ago.
About a 5 minute read.
Image: More countries and companies are pushing passengers to trains for short trips, rather than flying. | SenuScape/Pexels
After a lengthy pause, tourism stands on the precipice of restarting again. But even as many travelers prepare to take to the open skies, aviation continues to grapple with its oversized carbon footprint compared with the rest of the industry.
On May 13, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
that fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear their masks in most
circumstances. Less than a week later, the United Kingdom reopened
under its new traffic light system. After a lengthy pause, the tourism industry
stands on the precipice of restarting again. But even as many travelers prepare
to take to the open skies, aviation continues to grapple with its oversized
carbon footprint compared with the rest of the industry.
Global aviation, including domestic and international passenger and freight
flights accounts for 1.9 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, 2.5 percent of
carbon dioxide emissions, and 3.5 percent of effective radiative
forcing. The industry
has made strides since the 1950s due to improved design, technology, and
passenger load factors. Yet, as Harold Goodwin pointed
for WTM, as other sectors decarbonize — and as the tourism industry itself
and other climate
— aviation will become a larger proportion of emissions.
Recognizing the need to drastically cut carbon emissions, several solutions have
surfaced within the sector, especially since the beginning of the year.
“We’ve committed to being 100 percent green by reducing our carbon emissions 100
percent by 2050 and have invested in ground-breaking technology to make our goal
a reality. But there’s still a long way to go,” wrote United Airlines CEO
Scott Kirby, in an email to MileagePlus members on April 13. United’s
response to the crisis is the Eco-Skies Alliance
— a program for companies to partner with the airline in its investment of
approximately 3.4 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) this year.
Individuals can also make non-tax-deductible donations toward the program.
United is not the only airline leaning into SAFs. In April, Alaska Airlines
committed to reaching net-zero
by 2040 through a five-pronged approach — upgrading its fleet, improving flight
efficiency, exploring electrification technology, investing in carbon-offsetting
technologies (a controversial solution that may not be
and expanding the market for SAF. Japan Airlines recently operated its
first commercial flight using
SAF, as well.
Experts question the feasibility and integrity of these commitments, however —
especially given their focus on future technological developments and
“Alternative fuels and propulsion systems may well help with climate mitigation
but it will probably be a long time before they are deployed at a scale that
makes a difference,” said Dr. Giulio
faculty of spatial planning in the Department of Transport Planning at TU
Dortmund. “The aviation industry has a long history of
how soon new clean technologies will be available, and how much they will help
in reducing emissions, in order to deny the fact that travel-demand management
measures will also be necessary.”
This points to one of the key challenges of decarbonization within the aviation
industry: Even though carbon dioxide emissions per passenger flight have fallen
more than 50 percent since
the volume of air traffic has increased by at least a fifth over the past five
years. An estimated 10 billion passengers a year are expected to take to the air
“The consensus in the sustainable transport research community is that it will
be necessary to curb air travel levels, with travel-demand management measures,”
Mattioli said. “However, to date, the industry and policy makers have been
extremely reluctant to accept this, as they continue to cater to and encourage
increasing travel activity — through, for example, airport expansions.”
Looking beyond technological solutions, some airlines are taking a more grounded
approach to their decarbonization efforts. Deutsche Bahn and the German
Aviation Association have stated an interest in working together over the next
decade to expand rail service and decrease short-haul
in Germany. These plans could move approximately 4.3 million flight passengers
to rail lines every year.
that replacing flights between Sydney and Melbourne with high-speed
train service could reduce carbon emissions over three decades. Additionally,
indicates that if all national short-haul flights were replaced by rail
journeys, carbon emissions from these trips could be reduced by 95 percent. In
April, the French National Assembly voted to ban domestic
on routes where the journey could be completed by train in less than
two-and-a-half hours. Only five routes were impacted and connecting flights
won’t be affected.
“Short-haul flights are easier to ban because there are viable rail
alternatives, but they account for a very small share of aviation emissions,”
Mattioli said. He also noted there is a danger of “perverse effects” from
cutting short-haul flights in that it would free up slots at airports that could
be replaced with long-haul routes. “The net outcome of this would paradoxically
be higher emissions,” he said.
Nonetheless, experts point out this shift in strategy from funding fuel
alternatives to creating a culture shift is fundamental to decarbonizing
“It marks one of the first times that politicians in a wealthy country have
endorsed something that most, if not all, have been reluctant to consider,”
wrote Enrica Papa and Luis Delgado in a recent article for The
about France’s cutback on domestic flights. “That high-carbon conveniences
aren’t always necessary, or even desirable — and that curbs on the most
polluting aspects of consumption are necessary to tackle climate change.”
Published May 24, 2021 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST
JoAnna Haugen is a writer, speaker and solutions advocate who has worked in the travel and tourism industry for her entire career. She is also the founder of Rooted — a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainable tourism, social impact and storytelling. A returned US Peace Corps volunteer, international election observer and intrepid traveler, JoAnna helps tourism professionals decolonize travel and support sustainability using strategic communication skills.