Airplanes are an undeniable part of our everyday life – from traveling for the holidays to free two-day shipping. The Drawdown book explains that about half of our freight volume travels in the ‘belly’ of passenger planes; the other half, in designated cargo planes (think overnight shipping). However, the carbon emissions associated with burning jet fuel offer significant opportunities for improved efficiency.

At the airport, a great deal of fuel is spent during taxiing, where arrival and departure times compete with fuel efficiency (i.e. towing planes with their engines turned off takes longer).  NASA is working with airplane manufacturers to improve fuel efficiency via design modifications such as the placement of engines, size and placement of wings, and redesign of the body to be more aerodynamic in flight.

Airplanes have a long way to go to improve fuel efficiency

Here are a few ways to reduce the environmental impacts of air travel:

Sustainable Aviation Fuel

Unlike automobiles, fuel efficiency for airplanes is not regulated by the government, which may explain why research for increasing the fuel efficiency for airplanes has been limited in the past. Similar to how automotive manufacturers research biodiesel and ethanol-based fuels for our cars, airplane manufacturers are working with researchers at the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Carbon War Room to develop sustainable aviation fuel from algae. Their goal is to switch 10% of the North American and European commercial aviation and jet fuel market to sustainable aviation fuel by 2025. By partnering with airports, delivering the sustainable jet fuels can maximize the use of existing infrastructure (Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has already jumped on board).

In-flight controls can improve airplane fuel efficiency

Carbon Offsets

In 2013, more than 3 billion plane tickets were sold. For many of us, air travel constitutes a large chunk of our personal carbon footprint. For example, a round trip ticket from New York to San Francisco amounts to 2 metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is almost the same impact as driving a Hummer the same distance. Although advances have been made in reducing business flights using telepresence, how any of us would skip flying home for the holidays based on our carbon footprint? The best solution for those who want to continue flying while mitigating their carbon footprint is to purchase carbon offsets – i.e. paying someone else to conserve what you spent. Carbon offset programs can range from planting trees to preventing deforestation to upgrading infrastructure to be more energy efficient, and these programs are verified by third-party standards.

Calculate your carbon footprint from air travel

Actions You Can Take Today:

  • Calculate your carbon footprint here and see how much your next flight might impact it
  • Purchase a carbon offset for your next flight (direct through United or through the Carbon Fund)
  • Check out the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Carbon War Room¬†initiative and their research on sustainable aviation fuel