Air Travel Could Get Greener Even as Flights Double

By Eric Rosen, National Geographic
Aug 10, 2017 4:30 PM ET

Originally published in National Geographic online.

The most pressing is how to prevent a doubling in air traffic from doubling the environmental impact of air travel in the coming decades. Discussions and proposals had been under way for years, when, last October, 68 countries whose air traffic comprises nearly 90 percent of international aviation signed on to the Carbon Offsetting Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).

Put forward by the International Civil Aviation Organization—part of the United Nations—CORSIA is a statement of intention to achieve carbon-neutral growth, starting as early as 2021, with 2020 levels as the baseline. In other words, in the years beyond 2020, emissions would remain capped at 2020 levels, with gradual changes that can vary from country to country in order to account for unique circumstances, including the needs of developing markets.

CORSIA will operate through the trading of emission “units,” a type of carbon commodity market. So while in theory aviation growth would be “carbon neutral,” that could be achieved through declines in CO2 emissions in other sectors rather than through those made directly in aviation.

Climate change aside, airlines and plane manufacturers have another reason to keep their emissions low: cost. More carbon emissions are the result of higher fuel consumption. Lower fuel consumption, and airlines will see higher profit margins.

“Fuel,” says Sean Newsum, Boeing’s director of environmental strategy, “constitutes somewhere from 30 to 40 percent of an airline’s typical operating costs.”

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