Guilt free flying? How airlines can achieve net-zero emissions

One of the saddest elements of the Covid-19 pandemic, writes Ashley Norris of Transition Earth, has been the way that it has largely put the brakes on international travel. 

Yet even before Covid hit environmentally concerned consumers were already starting to agonise over their use of airlines. Airline travel accounts for 2.5% of global carbon emissions.

So what can the airlines do to make their services more sustainable?

The key trend among them appears to be aiming to become net-zero by 2050. Last year a host of airlines including American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Royal Air Moroc, Royal Jordanian, S7 Airlines, Sri Lankan Airlines and Fiji Airways all signed up to an initiative called Oneworld which agreed on a range of measures to aim for zero emissions.

Now Cathay Pacific has been giving more details of how it is aiming for zero emissions by 2050.

In its sustainable development report, which was published last week Cathay Pacific says it “embraces its responsibility to lead the charge towards sustainable aviation and ensuring future generations can experience the joy of travel”.

Similar to other airlines Cathay Pacific’s plans for delivering net-zero are based around a trio of innovations

  • improving aircraft efficiency
  • scaling up sustainable aviation fuel use 
  • offsetting remaining emissions via a carbon credit programme.

Improving efficiency is largely based around upgrading exciting aircraft and investing in new more efficient ones. There is also an aim of reducing engine use on the ground.

Cathay Pacific faces a bigger challenge in the shift to sustainable aviation use. At the current time, it only accounts for 2% of the total amount of fuel it uses. The company estimates that it will purchase 1.1 million tonnes of sustainable aviation fuel within the next ten years. There are limitations on its use though, mainly because of a lack of supply. The company hopes that issues around its distribution will be resolved as time goes by.

One potential magic bullet could be to switch to either electric or hydrogen-based fuels. However, the technologies, while developing, are still immature and not suitable for long-range travelling.

The most controversial element of  Cathay Pacific’s net-zero plans is carbon-offsetting. The company is working with The Gold Standard to purchase verified credits. “The unprecedented pandemic has shaken the world and showed us that ‘business-as-usual’ is not an option when dealing with an imminent global risk,” Cathay Pacific Group’s chief executive Augustus Tang said.

“Climate change, potentially a much more disruptive crisis, calls for ramped-up efforts.”

Fancy a trip from Liverpool to Belfast or Barcelona to the Balearic Islands but concerned about the carbon footprint of aeroplane travel? Well a a small Bedford-based company is promising a surprising solution: commercial airships. Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), which has developed a new environmentally friendly airship 84 years after the Hindenburg disaster, has named a string of routes it hopes to serve from 2025.

The routes for the 100-passenger Airlander 10 airship include Barcelona to Palma de Mallorca in four and a half hours. The company said the journey by airship would take roughly the same time as aeroplane travel once getting to and from the airport was taken into account, but would generate a much smaller carbon footprint. HAV said the CO2 footprint per passenger on its airship would be about 4.5kg, compared with about 53kg via jet plane.

Ashley Norris