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Sustainability in the Aviation Industry: is it Truly Soaring to New Heights?

Chinny is a Year 12 IBDP student from Hong Kong. Passionate about the intersection between sustainability, STEM, and social justice, she enjoys working with other youth to initiate positive change and impact in various underresourced communities. Aside from writing, you can find her baking or running.

Chinny is also part of the SustainaPod Team. SustainaPod is a podcast that delves into various sustainability stories across different sectors. Each episode will put youth in direct dialogue with leading sustainability professionals, thinkers, activists and more. We explain each topic with the experienced guest and help listeners understand more about the diverse components (or should we say ‘pods’!) of sustainability today for young people.

You can listen to their podcast episodes here.

Growing up, I’d always imagined myself working as an airline pilot, learning the physics behind the mechanics of planes and the science that goes into allowing humans to take to the skies. I pictured cruising through the sky every day and working globally. My mom worked in the airline industry, so she would tell me stories of traveling and meeting people from all sorts of backgrounds. However, this dream didn’t emerge as a priority until I reached high school, where I realised I needed the academic credentials to become qualified for pursuing this path. It was also at this point where I began to find myself dabbling in more fields other than aeronautical science - from social justice, educational inequality and environmental awareness, manifesting in the form of joining organizations and working alongside other young people to raise awareness and create impact in sustainability.

When it came to the point where I needed to focus on a specific field in order to pick my IB subjects, it was extremely difficult to narrow down my many interests. But something that piqued my interest was the intersection between sustainable development and the aviation industry. Despite flying accounting for a large proportion of many individuals’ carbon footprint, the industry only contributes 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, and 1.9% of all greenhouse gas emissions [1]. This number is surprisingly small, considering there are over 100,000 flights that take off (and land) every day [2]. Airline emissions have doubled since the mid 1980s, but its growth has been relatively similar to that of global CO2 emissions from all sources, so hence its percentage contribution has continued to oscillate from 2-2.5%. Most flights are powered by jet gasoline (excluding the few that run on biofuel), which is converted to CO2 in combustion reactions. Considering global emissions have only grown, it’s no surprise to anyone that the growth of CO2 emissions is causing immense detriment to the environment and presents itself as an urgent issue to be fixed.

I will be delving into two recent developments in the aviation industry that directly correlate to the action being taken to fight climate change and decarbonise the aviation industry. Firstly, the creation of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (or SAF); this is a liquid fuel made out of different sources of feedstock (i.e. non-food crops, waste oil and municipal waste) used in commercial aviation that reduces CO2 emissions up to 80% [3]. It is currently estimated to reduce 65% of emissions required for the aviation industry to reach that net zero in 2050.

Secondly, there is the use of AI in contrail formation during flight. Contrails, or the occasional white streaks made of small ice droplets in the sky that we see from airplanes in flight, contribute 35% of aviation’s global warming impact and over half of the impact of the world’s jet fuel according to the 2022 IPCC [4]. Contrails contribute to global warming by spreading and merging together, forming large areas and trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. To alleviate this issue, Google has partnered with American Airlines and Breakthrough Energy to analyze data in satellite imagery, flight path and weather data, and use AI to develop contrail forecast maps to test if pilots can choose routes that avoid creating contrails. By analyzing this data and focusing on avoiding altitudes that are most likely to form contrails, pilots were able to reduce contrail formation by 54%, the first verification that global warming can be mitigated with cost effective measures and a relatively low impact on an airline’s fuel impact (as low as 0.3%).

However, there is controversy about the sustainability practices of airlines. ‘Greenwashing’ has emerged as a prominent term to describe misleading information shared by companies to exaggerate their environmental friendliness. Ryanair and Etihad are two airlines that have recently come under fire for allegedly false claims. This was regarding Ryanair’s statement of being Europe’s ‘lowest emission airline’, or Ehitad’s reference to ‘sustainable aviation’. Therefore, airlines have been warned to stop faking the implication of the environmental benefits of their aviation (which simply, isn’t true most of the time). As mentioned before, flying is one of the biggest contributors to one’s carbon footprint, and Miles Lockwood, the director of complaints and investigations at Britain's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said that "One of the things we just caught onto was that a lot of airlines are making claims about sustainability and eco-friendly, sustainable choices, greener choices." [5]. By luring consumers into a false sense of assurance that what they are doing is ‘good for the environment’, brands continue to profit off of their ignorance, hence continuing to drive the damaging notion of ‘business as usual’ and prevent any real climate impact.

So, going back to this growing intersection between sustainability and the aviation industry that I talked about. It’s not as far-fetched as I thought, and it’s exciting to see how data science and greener alternatives are being implemented to support climate efforts across the globe. In a world where sustainability is starting to become interconnected in all fields, it’s important as consumers that we become aware and embrace scientific solutions that contribute to a more sustainable environment. By doing our own part to raise awareness and understanding that will undoubtedly benefit us for the better, we can also dodge opportunities for misinformation and falling into consumer traps by large corporations, including airlines.



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