Sustainable Aviation; not going to fly?

David van der Velden


While a worldwide pandemic is raging across our continent clogging up respiratory systems, one perpetually contaminated airway seems to finally get a chance at healing. As one country after another is closing their borders, not just for refugees this time, the lungs of our planet are at last allowed to breathe. Airlines are forced to see their sales shrivel as tourism slowly tanks to halt, finally bringing a sense of quiet to the usually overburdened European city centers. A silver lining perhaps?

It could be, considering that Europe’s current strategy when it comes to aviation-induced climate change is comparable to spitting on a bushfire. The rapidly increasing accessibility of commercial flying allowed for a large part of the Western world to swap their once-a-year camping trip in a neighboring country for holidays in far-away exotic locations. The promethean growth of the tourism sector that followed created a surge in air transport that has swiftly normalised travelling half the globe for a city trip. Because who would not want to fly from Amsterdam to New York and back for just 200 euros? 


“Because who would not want to fly from Amsterdam to New York and back for just 200 euros?”

In fact, there are many reasons why you should not. As has been known for quite a while now, yet only recently catching momentum, aviation is responsible for emitting large quantities of greenhouse gasses. Even a short-haul flight, such as those going from Amsterdam to London, emits as much as the average person in Uganda emits in a whole year. As a result, air travel habits make up the largest share of most Europeans’ carbon footprints.

So how is the European Union planning on addressing the enormous elephant that is sitting and shitting on their plans for a Carbon Neutral continent by 2050?

Their response comes in the form of a European Aviation Strategy which will “enable European aviation to flourish globally.” The plan emphasizes the economic importance of the aviation sector and highlights its competitiveness, which roughly translates to: we are going to keep pretending as if the elephant was never there to begin with. 


“The aspect of sustainability has been reduced to a perfunctory side note with little to no concrete measures attached to it.”

The aspect of sustainability has been reduced to a perfunctory side note with little to no concrete measures attached to it. Responsibility has been outsourced to the International Civil Aviation Organization, a club so entangled with the aviation sector that it is comparable to asking Coca Cola to come up with a plan for combating child obesity. 

This forced marriage between growth and sustainability is seen across all sectors, yet for aviation these plans come especially close to a flight of fancy. Airtravel, as of now, has very little potential for decarbonizing their products. Yet a recurring presence in any debate about the sustainability of aviation are those believing some miracle invention will rid us of all our carbon puffing customs in one clean sweep.

Then what about all these news articles about planes traveling on solar energy or the seemingly very promising battery powered electric planes? These phenomena are commonly referred to as technology myths, stalling aviation policy rather than being potential silver bullets with the capability of solving aviation’s sustainability issues in one shot. Many of these ‘myths’ are currently at a precarious stage of development, with little to no realistic chance at making future air travel any greener.

Take for instance the Solar Impulse, a one seat plane with a wingspan exceeding that of a Boeing B747-400. This Swiss experiment received a great deal of media coverage when it flew around the world in 23 days on solar energy alone. Leaving in its trail many hopeful yet deceitful headlines hinting at a sustainable future with skies full of solar-powered vehicles. A very impressive accomplishment indeed, but as its creators themselves acknowledged: “solar planes will never replace fuel-powered commercial flights.” 

Currently, solar cells reach around 20 to 25% energy efficiency. Even if technological advancement made it possible to push this to 100%, which at this stage can be considered near impossible, the energy provided by the sun would still fall short by a factor of 40, even for smaller plane models. All this is not to say that experiments like the Solar Impulse are a waste of (solar) energy and resources. However, the fact that they, more often than not, receive incomplete media coverage makes it so that they serve as a diversion rather than a contribution to solving the real issue; aviation cannot keep growing.

A number to which any aviation associate will ardently allude, is the mere 2 percent of global CO2 emissions for which their sector is responsible. A misleadingly low number for a plethora of reasons. Even taking into account improvements in fuel efficiency, emissions of European aviation are forecast to have doubled by 2050. And if you thought the expected growth of Europe’s aviation sector seemed excessive and impossible to rhyme with climate goals, Asia is going to be the same but on steroids. With India and China housing over 35% of the global population, out of which the largest part has yet to take their first flight, global aviation might soon crush any chance at preventing an ecological catastrophe. 


“Whereas in 2008 European banks were deemed “too big to fail”, the corona crisis has shown that national airlines also exist on this list…”

Whereas in 2008 European banks were deemed “too big to fail”, the corona crisis has shown that national airlines also exist on this list as governments jump in to save their respective air carriers. An optimist might see current events as a wake-up call, perhaps even a as a chance to change things before it is definitely too late. With most airlines and tourism companies technically being bankrupt already, now is a pivotal and unique chance to reevaluate our sky-spoiling, city-centre wrecking habits. Why save airlines if you could save the planet? 


First published Online. April 2020. Volume 15, Issue 3. Painting by Ken Jolly (2017)