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The Environmental Impact of Aviation

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The environmental impact of aviation is a contentious issue with many strong feelings about it so if you have something to say on this subject feel free to comment below.

This post was originally written before the global pandemic of 2020 and its subsequent impact on the aviation industry. It was inspired by a Facebook post in which someone shared a short video encouraging people to fly less often. The video promoted the idea that air travellers could do their bit to reduce the impact of aviation on the environment by lessening demand.

It is widely known that the aviation industry is expanding, partly due to passenger demand but also because of an increase in air freight. I too am concerned about the environmental impact of humanity on the planet. In my lifetime the pace and the severity of the damage has increased dramatically.

In the mid 1970s I sent my first donation to what was then a small group of campaigners protesting against nuclear tests in the Pacific and the slaughter of whales in the oceans. That group was called Greenpeace and a few years later they became Greenpeace International.

In the forty years that have passed since the early days of environmentalism many things have got better but a lot of things have also got worse. There’s no room of complacency in any industry and it’s good that we examine the impact we have on the environment, directly or indirectly.

Environmental Impact of Aviation: Sustainable Aviation

Consumers can change their habits and developers can design cleaner and more efficient technologies. All these things are happening now. Take a look at the work of the UK based Sustainable Aviation.

“Sustainable Aviation is a long term strategy which sets out the collective approach of UK aviation to tackling the challenge of ensuring a cleaner, quieter, smarter future for our industry.”

Aviation biofuels were approved for commercial use in 2011 and second generation aviation biofuels are now in development. More fuel-efficient and less polluting turbofan and turboprop engines have been developed and produced.

Hybrid and electrically powered aircraft are now being designed and the first prototypes are appearing, but none of this research would be possible if the aviation industry was in a slump or permanent decline. It takes investment to carry out research and development and those funds come from the profits of healthy companies.

According to the European Commission’s website, “Direct emissions from aviation account for about 3% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions and more than 2% of global emissions.”

Compare that to these figures from the International Maritime Organisation’s website, “For the period 2007–2012, on average, shipping accounted for approximately 3.1% of annual global CO2 and approximately 2.8% of annual greenhouse gases.”

Maritime CO2 Emissions

Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right and there’s no sense in getting into the distraction of whataboutery, but how often do you hear about environmental campaigns to persuade people to stop buying cheap goods shipped to Europe from overseas, or video pledges and petitions to persuade people to stop taking holidays on cruise ships?

I wonder if these same campaigners have considered the impact of their own buying choices on the tonnage of goods that arrive by sea.

Aviation is an easy target because it’s more visible. Airports are obvious to us and the aircraft that fly in our skies are daily reminder of the industry. Shipping and its impact on the environment is much less apparent to the general public. Container ships cross the oceans constantly, bringing with them some things that may be essential to us but also tons of goods that will soon end up on land-fill sites or worse, dumped in the very oceans that first transported them to us.

Many western countries are crammed with stuff that no one uses. It’s in our lofts, garages, and in storage sites. It isn’t just aero engines and marine engines that need to be more efficient and less polluting. We could also buy and store less junk!

Unintended Consequences of Less Air Travel

We should also consider the unintended consequences of persuading people to stop flying abroad for holidays or making it too expensive for them to do so. Many families and communities on far off islands have come to rely on tourists for their livelihoods.

Tourism is a huge industry in the Caribbean for example, with most visitors arriving by air. How will you explain to them that it’s a good thing they are now unemployed because the tourists are staying at home instead?

Airliners also bring tourists and investors to countries in Africa that use the income the nurture their fragile economies. While cargo aircraft fly to Europe bringing with them fresh produce from African farms relying on markets abroad.

There are many ways in which we, as individuals, can lessen our detrimental impact as a species on the planet. For some it might include not travelling by air but if you take a cruise instead you might be surprised by the amount of CO2 your trip has generated.

I will continue to take guilt-free trips aboard by air as when I can afford them but I will probably travel light and without any palm oil derivative products. I will be glad to contribute in a small way to the industry that employs pilots, cabin crew, airport & airline staff, engineers, baggage handlers, and air traffic controllers.

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