Words by Natalie Manoharan
The forever dismal news coverage of fossil fuel usage and CO2 emissions showed emissions hit a record high yet again in 2023. Global emissions increased by 1.1% last year from a record 36.8 billion tonnes produced in 2022. But it’s not all doom and gloom – the first transatlantic flight using 100% sustainable fuel jetted off at the end of last year in a bid to move one step closer towards clean air travel.
Air Travel Surge
The number of global flights has gone from 23 million to 38 million in a mere 15 years between 2004 and 2019. Flying is one of the least environmentally friendly methods of transport, producing around 246 grams of carbon dioxide emissions per kilometre in 2022.
These aviation emissions are far larger than travelling by train, with only 35 grams of carbon dioxide produced per kilometre by rail. Despite this, train prices continue to rise whilst short-haul flights remain the same, or similar. Analysing different routes from Barcelona to London reveal that a train costs, on average, more than ten times the price of a flight, and nearly thirty times more than a short-term trip (a Ryanair flight can be as little as £12.99, a train £384). People are flying more – this is undeniable – so how can we make flying cleaner?
The quickest, cheapest and most effective way to reduce pollution contributions from the air travel sector is to stop, or massively reduce, flying. However, in terms of an economic cost-benefit analysis as explored above, this is becoming less feasible. Instead, sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) are being explored as an alternative option. SAF can be made from a variety of sources, including crops, household waste, and cooking oils.
The Virgin Atlantic flight, named Flight100, took off from London Heathrow and flew to New York JFK to demonstrate the potential use of SAF on long-haul flights. This high-flying success is an impressive step in the right direction as Virgin Atlantic’s CEO, Shai Weiss, said:
“Flight100 marks an important milestone in aviation’s biggest challenge – decarbonisation. It’s taken radical collaboration and we’re proud to have reached this point, but we need to push further.”
Flight100 contained 50 tonnes of SAF, 88% of it derived from waste fats and the rest from the wastes of corn production in the US. An additional benefit to SAFs is that they equate to extra revenue for farmers.
We have taken one step forward to flying green, but guilt-free flying may be quite a way off. Although some airlines now use small amounts of biofuel, largely made from crops, they only account for 0.5% of all aviation fuel. A key issue right now is space. To produce enough SAF fuel to supply the UK aviation industry would require over 50% of Britain’s farming land and this, if it were possible, would put immense pressure on food supplies.
What can you do to travel greener?
To travel greener as a student you can opt for eco-friendly transportation like trains or buses. Small steps such as taking public transport when travelling less than 5km or carpooling to reduce individual vehicle emissions are effective if we all do it. Finally, embrace walking as the most sustainable method of transportation. Get your layers on, umbrella up (it is Manchester after all), and spend the extra 20 minutes of travel time on foot to improve both the world’s health and yours.