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When will flying turn green?

Andreas Spaeth
July 3, 2019

Flying has an impact on the climate and everyone should use planes responsibly — that’s what even airlines say now. "Flight shaming" is making a difference, as our reporter Andreas Spaeth found out.

Fridays for Future rally in Aachen, Germany
Image: DW/G. Rueter

It happened in early June in Seoul during an annual general meeting of IATA, the organization of scheduled airlines representing the majority of global air traffic. During the closing press conference, Director General Alexandre de Juniac was asked a simple question by a reporter from a news agency: "Are you polluters?"

The highest-ranking airline industry lobbyist looked puzzled and bewildered. The reporter asked a second time and earned some eye rolling in response. Only after the question was repeated a third time, de Juniac started to lecture, with visible reluctance, about how much the aviation industry does about protecting the climate.

And that's actually true; a lot has happened over the past few years. But what's obvious here is the impression that the top representative of the most important industry organization had not fully realized the seriousness of the situation.

Spilling over from Sweden

The term "flight shame" emerged in Sweden, and since then flying has become a symbol of wrongdoing for the generation of school students on strike. The aviation industry, responsible for 2%-3% of man-made CO2 emissions, is now in the public's crosshairs.

For a lot of very young people, flying for the first time has acquired a negative connotation. This could evolve into a major problem for the airlines in a decade, once there is not an automatically growing supply of willing new customers anymore as has been so far. Future generations could radically alter their flying behavior, possibly meaning there will be fewer passengers overall than today.

Lufthansa Airbus plane using biofuel
A Lufthansa Airbus plane advertising environmentally friendly flyingImage: DW/A. Spaeth

That's despite facts that basically sound favorable for aviation: Modern aircraft fly with lower noise and consume less fuel than ever before, meaning they also emit less CO2, despite the overall number of flights still increasing and with it total emissions levels.

Reducing the footprint

The negative environmental footprint left by each passenger has halved since 1990, says IATA. From 2020, the industry wants to become carbon-neutral. Until 2050, it aspires to cut net CO2 emissions to half the levels recorded in 2005, irrespective of growth.

"We have to argue in a more popular way about what we have achieved, facts alone don't get through in communications," demands Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr. Lufthansa points out that it took only 3.65 liters of kerosene in 2018 to fly one passenger over a hundred kilometers (62 miles), marking a new record. Compare this to the 5.2 liters needed in 1994 for the same distance.

Lufthansa wants to bring this down further by ordering 210 new aircraft due to be delivered by 2027.

Current EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc, however, takes aim at the industry: "CO2 emissions today are double those of the 1990s, tickets are too cheap and don't cover the environmental impact of flying, this can't continue. We need a quick turnaround, we can do it."

While IATA boss de Juniac stubbornly stresses that much in the "hype against flying" is based on misinformation and it is too easy to only accuse aviation while other modes of transport are much bigger polluters, others in the industry have moved far ahead. Dutch airline KLM for example is constructively working on the future of aviation. "FlyResponsibly" is a new campaign asking people to fly in a more responsible manner.

"This is not about not flying," says KLM CEO Pieter Elbers, but just using aircraft more thoughtfully, and ideally less. 'Fridays for Future' is less articulating resentment against flying but rather the wish to be flying in a responsible manner," says Elbers.

"Flying all over the world for just a couple of euros is what people don't find responsible and rightly so," he adds.

The KLM boss is one of the few airline CEOs factoring in losses for his own business. "The changing mood in society is clear and we should embrace it. Yes, there could be less growth going forward because of people reconsidering their flying behavior, but that in itself is not bad," stresses Elbers.

KLM Flying V
KLM's impressive Flying V, seen here in a computer animationImage: KLM

Search for sustainable fuels

"Our biggest opportunity is sustainable aviation fuels, they can reduce our carbon footprint by up to 80%," notes IATA boss Alexandre de Juniac. But the topic has moved at a snail's pace as kerosene made from oil became so cheap again that it pushed more expensive bioalternatives out of sight. Lufthansa for example had run several biofuel projects years ago, but now all but abandoned its efforts.

Not so at KLM: In late May, the Dutch signed a deal to take 75,000 tons of sustainable biofuel from 2022. That's out of 100,000 tons that a new refinery will produce — one which is currently under construction in the Netherlands. It will mostly use waste products such as used cooking oil as feedstock for production.

With this facility, aviation can save 270,000 tons of CO2 emissions annually, "that equals the amount of CO2 emissions for over 1,000 flights between Amsterdam and Rio," Elbers points out. But the Dutch look for support elsewhere: "We can't make the transition to biofuel at KLM alone; this is an issue for the whole industry."

A new 'Flying Dutchman'

And the Dutch have another ace up their sleeves that looks much sexier than a refinery: the Flying V.

KLM supports the Technical University of Delft in its quest for developing the aircraft of the future. The concept plane is smaller than the Airbus A350 and thus can use existing airports, but it's also capable of flying the same amount of passengers and cargo, while burning 20% less fuel.

"We surely need more than 25 years of further research for this, but coinciding with KLM's 100th anniversary in October, we will launch a test model measuring 3x3 meters," says professor Henri Werij from TU Delft. Initially the design will be propelled by kerosene while the search is on for alternatives.

"Batteries don't work on long haul flights, hydrogen and fuel cells would be a possibility," notes Werij. It is highly unlikely an aircraft will ever look like today's animations, but at least the Flying V is lending wings to people's imagination and strengthens the desire to make the future of flying more sustainable.

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