Almost every area of human activity has an impact on the environment and how to minimise our impact on the planet is becoming increasingly important. Consumers are beginning to look for ways to make a material difference to their own environmental footprint through reductions in use of plastics and efforts to reduce their carbon emissions, while corporations are now implementing emission reduction strategies through their CSR departments.
Aviation plays a relatively small role in the global story, producing around 2% of the world’s manmade emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) according to the IPCC (that’s the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change if you were wondering). However, it is also a high-profile industry and one that arguably attracts a disproportionate amount of negative press when it comes to CO2 emissions. This is, in part, due to the rapid growth in air transport. Although passenger numbers are growing at a rate of approximately 5% each year, airlines, in general, have managed to separate that growth curve and reduce emissions growth to around 3%.
How did they manage it?
Using IATA’s multi-faceted approach: the four-pillar strategy
- Improved technology
- More efficient aircraft operations
- Infrastructure improvements
- A single global market-based measure, to fill the remaining emissions gap
Improved Technology – using new technology in aircraft production to reduce emissions. Very substantial improvements have been made in fuel efficiency in the last fifteen years which means as new aircraft come into service, they are replacing older, less fuel-efficient machines.
More efficient aircraft operations - saving fuel through more efficient procedures e.g. continuous descent, engine washes, improved air traffic control
Infrastructure improvements - including modernized air traffic management systems
Alternative Fuel Sources - Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). SAF is a non-fossil-based hydrocarbon fuel and not just produced from biological resources, hence why it isn’t referred to as a biofuel (Some people get very annoyed when that happens!)
Aviation is not only focused on reducing its emissions growth, as the industry grows to meet increasing passenger demand; it is seeking carbon neutral growth from 2020 and a significant reduction in emissions by 2050, against a baseline of 2005. With several fast-growing emerging markets, the IPCC forecasts that its share of global manmade CO2 emissions will increase to around 3% in 2050 (based on the mid-range IPCC emission scenario) and a growing carbon footprint is unacceptable for any industry.
With the recent headline grabbing stories surrounding the recent trips taken by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex by private jet, the environmental impact of private flights has been brought to the fore; but what is the difference between travelling commercial (like most of us lessor mortals) - apart from the price - and is it really as bad for the environment as it is portrayed?
Travelling by private jet isn’t considered particularly green, but why is that? Smaller aircraft, less fuel surely, it’s better for the environment? Although the amount of fuel burnt and therefore, CO2 emitted, is lower than a commercial jet, generally speaking there are normally fewer people on board and that is why private flights are less efficient than commercial flight and also why the personal carbon footprint of private passengers is much higher.
There are varying estimates around the difference in output of carbon per passenger (CPP) in commercial and private flights but let’s look at an example and see how it stacks up.
Using RDC Aviation’s CO2 calculator to analyse the route London Heathrow (LHR) to Ibiza (IBZ)
A typical Airbus A320 emits roughly 16.5 tonnes (one-way) of CO2 or 98kg per seat.
An average mid-size business jet produces just over 6 tonnes of CO2 (one-way) or 763kg seat.
Well that solves it then - or does it?
It’s a little more complicated. That is just the total output of CO2, per aircraft and not the Carbon per Passenger (CPP)
When calculating the CPP there are several factors to take into consideration such as the make and model of the aircraft being compared, the length of journey and the number of passengers per flight.
An A320 can carry approximately 168 passengers at any one time but in comparison an average mid-size jet can carry approximately 8 people.
So, if we assume the A320 has an occupancy, or load factor, of 85%, the CPP works out at 115kg. If we assume that the load factor on the average mid-size jet is 100% that works out to 1018kg CPP.
That’s a whopping 9 times less efficient CPP – although 2.5 times lower in terms of total emissions. So, it depends on how you look at it.
Now it’s not an exact science, seating configurations vary on each aircraft, actual flight range and cruise speed vary with payload, wind, weather, and other conditions that have an impact on aircraft performance, but it gives a good estimation.
So, is the private aviation industry likely to suffer? Is everybody going to start ditching private flights? I can’t see that happening anytime soon. Especially since the industry has some of the best tax breaks available.
In Europe, businesses and individuals can avoid VAT on imported private jets by routing purchases through the Isle of Man, cutting tax bills by £790m for imports of at least 200 aircraft into the EU since 2011, according to The Economist.
In the US, recent tax reform means both individuals and companies can write off 100% of the cost of a new or used private jet against their federal taxes.
A consequence of those tax breaks is the cost of flying privately is now lower than it has been. There are a greater number of private aircraft on the various global registers which has, in turn, led to more jet-sharing websites, making it easier to compare prices or offer empty legs - attracting those individuals who would have previously booked business or first-class commercial.
So how do we make flying greener?
As passengers become more climate aware, some aviation companies are looking at carbon offsetting programmes.
We hear a lot about “offsetting” but what does it really mean? Well it’s the process of calculating emissions per flight and then purchasing equivalent “credits” from projects that prevent or remove the emissions of the equivalent amount of greenhouse gases.
I.e. Airlines can add a voluntary carbon charge when passengers book a ticket. Customers can then choose to pay the fee to offset their carbon footprint for that flight. The money raised is invested into a variety of schemes e.g. developing SAF or carbon neutral schemes.
In the world of private jets, the use of SAF is a more realistic next step for de-carbonising than it is in the commercial aviation world, where supply chain logistics and the sheer volume of SAF needed makes the economics less attractive. And after that, the next leap is likely to be electric aircraft – far easier (though still currently a way away) to deploy on smaller, lighter aircraft, than on large widebodies.
Is it as bad as people make out? When you realise it will take a typical hardwood tree about 40 years to absorb 1 ton of Co2 (#TreeFacts) it’s certainly important that the industry looks at ways of reducing the overall impact of Co2 emissions on the environment.
So, in summary which is greener? It depends on what you are measuring to determine this and in what context you look at it. In terms of absolute emissions, private is “greener” but looking at carbon per seat or CPP, commercial is the clear winner. What does this mean for the future? Will it remain the same? My guess is that private will close the gap. Maybe, very significantly.