Telling the difference between a marketing buzzword and an effective carbon strategy for sustainable flying

Carbon neutral, net zero, offsetting and sustainable aviation fuels – what does it all really mean for travellers? Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel getsto the bottom of these popularised terms in an article on the inews website.

 

Is sustainable flying possible? From offsetting flights to green aviation fuel

Tourism needs to emit much less carbon. But how? The industry is under pressure to find the answers. EasyJet and Rolls Royce recently announced the successful test of a low-carbon hydrogen-powered jet engine. British Airways has launched a scheme for travellers to purchase carbon removal credits to make their flights “carbon neutral.”

Such high-profile solutions can be meaningful. However, some are designed to deflect responsibility or preserve the status quo. How can you tell the difference between a marketing buzzword and an effective carbon strategy?

‘Carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero‘

Firstly, carbon cannot be neutralised. Once we’ve released it into the atmosphere it sticks around for up to 1,000 years. The UK, EU, US and many others have committed to carbon neutrality by 2050. This “net zero” goal means balancing the carbon that is emitted with absorbing it in carbon sinks such as soil, forests and oceans that absorb more carbon than they emit.

However, we can’t offset our way out of the climate crisis. Voluntary carbon offsetting simply perpetuates the myth that we can continue to fly unchecked. Reducing how much carbon we pump out in the first place should be our top priority. Contributing to nature-based carbon solutions like tree planting is a good thing, of course, but it is only effective if we also fly less.

If airlines were a country, they’d be a top 10 global carbon emitter. When we do fly, we need to make those trips count: stay longer and support local communities and conservation. Pick trains over planes, travel on public transport, or be people-powered – hiking, biking, or kayaking – between destinations.

Sustainable aviation fuels

Sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) are now used to varying degrees by dozens of airlines; according to Iata around half a million flights have used them. SAFs – usually biofuels made from plants or used cooking oil – are mixed with standard fuel to reduce emissions. Therefore, SAF-powered flights are still polluting.

Some airlines offer book and claim schemes, such as British Airways and Lufthansa – you can pay to add SAFs to your flight to reduce – rather than offset – your carbon.

But SAFs alone aren’t enough. They need to be used alongside flying less and other carbon-reduction measures, including a greater plant-based diet, which research suggests can reduce our carbon “foodprint” by up to 73 per cent, and choosing renewables-powered accommodations. Places like El Geco Verde in Spain, which is entirely off-grid using solar panels, show how it can be done.

EasyJet’s carbon-free hydrogen fuel test offers a glimpse of what might be possible in the future. It’s exciting, and potentially game changing. But electric, hydrogen, and even hybrid flights are developing too slowly to keep us below 1.5C or even 2C warming by 2030.

Nature-positive tourism

Solutions which actively improve nature’s ability to absorb and store carbon are a very good thing.

Over the past four decades, forests alone have absorbed a quarter of manmade carbon emissions, yet we’re losing them at devastating rates. Without solving the biodiversity crisis, we won’t solve the climate crisis. They’re two sides of the same coin.

Restoring nature doesn’t replace the need to emit less carbon. Nature is our life-support system. We need it for everything – clean water, food, medicines, preventing future pandemics – as well as for carbon storage.

Our first priority must always be to cut carbon emissions. If your chosen holiday company talks only of offsets, not reductions, you might want to look again.

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