EarthTalk: Is Green Air Travel Possible?

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EarthTalk is a weekly installment from E/The Environmental Magazine.


Dear EarthTalk: Are there any efforts underway to green the air travel industry? It seems to me that it must be one dirty business from a pollution standpoint.

Environmental battles over the siting and expansion of airports are as old as the air travel industry itself, but only in recent years have the airlines themselves been under pressure to go green.

And there’s no time like the present for the industry to take some action: Air pollution from commercial jets is a growing concern among scientists, as is air travel’s role in climate change because of the more acute warming effect of emissions when they are disbursed so much closer to the upper atmosphere.

According to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, an independent group of scientists that advises the British government, emissions from aircraft will likely be one of the major contributors to global warming by the year 2050. According to USA Today, on a flight from New York to Denver, a commercial jet generates between “840 to 1,660 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger. That’s about what an SUV generates in a month.”

Despite still gloomy times for the industry post-9/11, a few are actually responding to the call. Virgin is blazing new trails as part of a $3 billion investment in energy efficiency. The company is experimenting with biodiesel and ethanol, fuels derived from crops, and has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in ethanol-related businesses. But don’t expect to ride on a biofuel-powered jet anytime soon.

Airplane makers are getting in on the act, too. Boeing successfully flew the world’s first hydrogen-powered, fuel cell airplane in April 2008. A company spokesperson called the plane, a small one-seater, “full of promises for a greener future.” Boeing is working to develop a commercial version, but uncertainties about hydrogen production and distribution put this advancement well into the future, too.

So what can consumers do to fly greener today? Sharon Beaulaurier of GreenLight magazine suggests choosing airlines with newer, more fuel-efficient fleets such as JetBlue, Singapore Airlines or Virgin.

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  1. The EPA and the FAA both testified early in April about the greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft. Both of the agencies felt that aircraft should be less of a worry than automobiles, since aircraft represent about 3% of the emissions of greenhouse gases in the U.S. every year.

    Joe Lieberman and John Warner have offered a bill, S.2191, that will set up emission trading that will include aircraft emissions. ICAO, the international civil aviation organization, of which the U.S. is a member, strongly supports a trading program.

    For more information about the testimony of the EPA and the FAA see

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