If you’re a traveller who cares about reducing your carbon footprint, are some airlines better to fly with than others?
Several of the world’s major airlines have announced plans to become “carbon neutral”, while others are trialling new aviation fuels. But are any of their climate initiatives making much difference?
Those were the questions we set out to answer a year ago, by analysing what the world’s largest 58 airlines – which fly 70% of the total available seat-kilometres – are doing to live up to their promises to cut their climate impact.
The good news? Some airlines are taking positive steps. The bad news? When you compare what’s being done against the continued growth in emissions, even the best airlines are not doing anywhere near enough.
Our research found three-quarters of the world’s biggest airlines showed improvements in carbon efficiency – measured as carbon dioxide per available seat. But that’s not the same as cutting emissions overall.
One good example was the Spanish flag carrier Iberia, which reduced emissions per seat by about 6% in 2017, but increased absolute emissions by 7%.
For 2018, compared with 2017, the collective impact of all the climate measures being undertaken by the 58 biggest airlines amounted to an improvement of 1%. This falls short of the industry’s goal of achieving a 1.5% increase in efficiency. And the improvements were more than wiped out by the industry’s overall 5.2% annual increase in emissions.
This challenge is even clearer when you look slightly further back. Industry figures show global airlines produced 733 million tonnes of CO₂ emissions in 2014. Falling fares and more people around wanting to fly saw airline emissions rise 23% in just five years.
Airlines reported climate initiatives across 22 areas, with the most common involving fleet renewal, engine efficiency, weight reductions and flight path optimisation. Examples in our paper include:
Nineteen of the 58 large airlines I examined invest in alternative fuels. But the scale of their research and development programs, and use of alternative fuels, remains tiny.
As an example, for Earth Day 2018 Air Canada announced a 160-tonne emissions saving from blending 230,000 litres of “biojet” fuel into 22 domestic flights. How much fuel was that? Not even enough to fill the more than 300,000-litre capacity of just one A380 plane.
Some airlines, including Qantas, are aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050. While that won’t be easy, Qantas is at least starting with better climate reporting; it’s one of only eight airlines addressing its carbon risk through the systematic Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures process.
About half of the major airlines engage in carbon offsetting, but only 13 provide information on measurable impacts. Theses include Air New Zealand, with its FlyNeutral program to help restore native forest in New Zealand.
That lack of detail means the integrity of many offset schemes is questionable. And even if properly managed, offsets still avoid the fact that we can’t make deep carbon cuts if we keep flying at current rates.
Our research shows major airlines’ climate efforts are achieving nowhere near enough. To decrease aviation emissions, three major changes are urgently needed.
All airlines need to implement all measures across the 22 categories covered in our report to reap any possible gain in efficiency.
Far more research is needed to develop alternative aviation fuels that genuinely cut emissions. Given what we’ve seen so far, these are unlikely to be biofuels. E-fuels – liquid fuels derived from carbon dioxide and hydrogen – may provide such a solution, but there are challenges ahead, including high costs.
Governments can – and some European countries do – impose carbon taxes and then invest into lower carbon alternatives. They can also provide incentives to develop new fuels and alternative infrastructure, such as rail or electric planes for shorter trips.
Our research paper was released late last year, at a World Travel and Tourism Council event linked to the Madrid climate summit. Activist Greta Thunberg famously sailed around the world to be there, rather than flying.
Higher-income travellers from around the world have had a disproportionately large impact in driving up aviation emissions.
This means that all of us who are privileged enough to fly, for work or pleasure, have a role to play too, by:
To really make an impact, far more of us need to do all three.
As the world shifts away from fossil fuels, we will need to produce enormous numbers of wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles and batteries. Demand for the materials needed to build them will skyrocket.
This includes common industrial metals such as steel and copper, but also less familiar minerals such as the lithium used in rechargeable batteries and the rare earth elements used in the powerful magnets required by wind turbines and electric cars. Production of many of these critical minerals has grown enormously over the past decade with no sign of slowing down.
Australia is well placed to take advantage of this growth – some claim we are on the cusp of a rare earths boom – but unless we learn how to do it in a responsible manner, we will only create a new environmental crisis.
“Critical minerals” are metals and non-metals that are essential for our economic future but whose supply may be uncertain. Their supply may be threatened by geopolitics, geological accessibility, legislation, economic rules or other factors.
One consequence of a massive transition to renewables will be a drastic increase not only in the consumption of raw materials (including concrete, steel, aluminium, copper and glass) but also in the diversity of materials used.
Three centuries ago, the technologies used by humanity required half a dozen metals. Today we use more than 50, spanning almost the entire periodic table. However, like fossil fuels, minerals are finite.
If we take a traditional approach to mining critical minerals, in a few decades they will run out – and we will face a new environmental crisis. At the same time, it is still unclear how we will secure supply of these minerals as demand surges.
This is further complicated by geopolitics. China is a major producer, accounting for more than 60% of rare earth elements, and significant amounts of tungsten, bismuth and germanium.
This makes other countries, including Australia, dependent on China, and also means the environmental pollution due to mining occurs in China.
The opportunity for Australia is to produce its own minerals, and to do so in a way that minimises environmental harm and is sustainable.
Australia has well established resources in base metals (such as gold, iron, copper, zinc and lead) and presents an outstanding potential in critical minerals. Australia already produces almost half of lithium worldwide, for example.
In recent years, Geoscience Australia and several universities have focused research on determining which critical minerals are associated with specific base ores.
For example, the critical minerals gallium and indium are commonly found as by-products in deposits of lead and zinc.
To work out the best places to look for critical minerals, we will need to understand the geological processes that create concentrations of them in the Earth’s crust.
Critical minerals are mostly located in magmatic rocks, which originate from the Earth’s mantle, and metamorphic rocks, which have been transformed during the formation of mountains. Understanding these rocks is key to finding critical minerals and recovering them from the bulk ores.
For most western economies, rare earth elements are the most vital. These have electromagnetic properties that make them essential for permanent magnets, rechargeable batteries, catalytic converters, LCD screens and more. Australia shows a great potential in various deposit types across all states.
Cobalt and lithium are essential to ion batteries. Gallium is used in photodetectors and photovoltaics systems. Indium is used for its conductive properties in screens.
Critical minerals mining is seen now as an unprecedented economic opportunity for exploration, extraction and exportation.
Beyond the economic opportunity, this is also an environmental one. Australia has the chance to set an example to the world of how to make the supply of critical minerals sustainable. The question is: are we willing to?
Many of the techniques for creating sustainable minerals supply still need to be invented. We must invest in geosciences, create new tools for exploration, extraction, beneficiation and recovery, treat the leftover material from mining as a resource instead of waste, develop urban mining and find substitutes and effective recycling procedures.
In short, we must develop an integrated approach to the circular economy of critical minerals. One potential example to follow here is the European EURARE project initiated a decade ago to secure a future supply of rare earth elements.
More than ever, we need to bridge the gap between disciplines and create new synergies to make a sustainable future. It is essential to act now for a better planet.