A delta plane, not a sustainable airline

How to fly sustainably

You’ve spent months or years finding new and innovative ways to slash your carbon footprint. You drive less, take meatless Monday’s seriously, and swap out single use for reusable everywhere you can. While nowhere near the 4 tonnes per person we need to achieve for a sustainable planet, you have definitely slashed your carbon emissions by a noticeable amount.

Now you are suddenly faced with the need to fly, but that single flight is threatening to wipe out all the good you’ve done for the planet.

Flying has been condemned by famous environmentalists such as Gretta Thunberg because of the huge carbon footprint per passenger that aviation causes. While the aviation industry is responsible for only 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, it’s going to grow as more people can afford to travel this way.

Unfortunately, not everyone can whip out a sailboat whenever they need to travel, and sometimes speed is really of the essence. If you need to be there to say goodbye to a beloved family member or to help out in an emergency, a flight may be the only option.

Chances are if you’re reading this, you’ve already looked at alternate options to flying. You may have really good reasons for why a train, boat, or other public transport won’t work for you. That’s okay. This world is made up of difficult decisions, and not every single one will be the ideal environmental decision.

Not flying is, of course, the ideal decision, but this post is focused on what to do if this option isn’t available to you. When you have to fly, here’s how to do it with the lowest impact possible.

Choose the right airline

Not all airlines are created equal. Some are taking a ‘business as usual’ approach to climate change, while others are recognizing the damage the aviation industry is doing to the planet and are actively seeking change.

Your carbon footprint from flying could be reduced by as much as 80% depending on what airline you choose. If you can do nothing else, being careful about who you fly with can make a real difference. You can’t be too careful with your research either—plenty of airlines are happy to take your cash for ‘greener’ travel, without actually doing much to clean up their act.

Here’s a few things to look for when deciding who to travel with:

  • Using bio-fuels
    SAFs, or Sustainable Aviation Fuels, are an important part of reducing aviation emissions at this time. Sustainable Aviation Fuel is made from things like used cooking oil, algae, and crops like corn.

    SAFs are not perfect—and it can actually be hard to sort out the greenwashing from the actual green in this case. While many airlines are quick to give used cooking oil as an example of what the fuel can be made of, all the used cooking oil in the USA would be enough to fly its planes for just 3 days.

    There’s a lot to get into on what makes Sustainable Aviation Fuels truly sustainable, but using waste to make fuel when ever possible is a step in the right direction.
  • Modernized fleets
    Newer planes are more fuel efficient. Look for an airline that is modernizing their fleet, and if you have the time, research the individual planes to see if they are built with carbon emissions in mind. Airbus is particularly notable for climate friendly airplanes, and are even working towards making a carbon emission free plane, although these are still in development.

    Check what is in your planned airline’s fleet, and compare their environmental impact to the others in your area.
  • Carbon offsets
    Let’s get real here—carbon offsets are throwing the problem of the aviation industry’s carbon footprint back onto the consumer. Yet, offering carbon offsets for your journey is a great step in the right direction.

    Check to see if carbon offsets offered are certified with a reputable third party, and that this isn’t the only thing the airline is doing to become more environmentally friendly.
  • Look at details
    The bulk of emissions that can be saved at this time will come from SAFs and energy efficient aircraft, but if an airline is truly trying to become sustainable there are a lot of other smaller things they might do.

    This could be things like offering vegan meals on the flight, reducing plastic water bottle use, winglets, and other small additions can all add up to a huge carbon savings.

If this sounds like a lot to research, the good news is that there are several environmental indexes out there to help you. This article is very helpful and shows the 30 most environmentally friendly airlines. If you live in the USA, the only one to make this list is Alaska Airlines.

If you’re in Europe, you have a much better selection of climate friendly airlines to choose from, and China also showed up well for airlines that lowered carbon emissions.

The airline itself is probably the most important choice you can make, but there are also small things you can do as an individual to help.

Consider buying carbon-removal services

Carbon removal offsets work by drawing down carbon from the atmosphere, and sequestering it underground. Carbon removal actually removes carbon from the atmosphere, so if you emit 500 pounds of co2 on your trip, you can take that much directly out of the atmosphere.

While this is possible through companies such as climeworks, it’s definitely not affordable for the average person right now. If you can afford it it’s a great option to truly remove the carbon from your flight, but not the best choice for those of us on a budget.

If you can’t afford this don’t worry, plain carbon offsets will still help you be more responsible for your carbon emissions—but think if it as a play now, pay later approach to carbon emissions.

Plan how you fly

It’s not just the airline itself that matters. Small, individual choices can also make flying more environmentally friendly.

  • Choose non-stop flights
    Non-stop flights are better for the environment than short haul flights with many layovers. A direct flight is more efficient. You can make the most of this by choosing to fly off-peak season, which means less air traffic. When there is less air traffic, the flight path your individual airplane takes is usually more direct.
  • Pack light
    Lighter bags mean it takes less effort to keep the plane in the air, which in turn means less fuel. Reducing weight wherever possible will help lower carbon emissions.
  • Fly economy
    The less space you take up on the plane, the smaller your environmental impact. Business class and first class have more room, but that’s space that could have been taken up by a passenger. Fly economy when ever possible to help reduce the overall impact of your flight.

When ever possible, it’s better to choose alternative modes of transport. You never know, you may even be able to change your vacation to something local if you’re open minded. When you can’t though, taking steps to make your flight as environmentally friendly as possible can greatly reduce your impact.

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