Last year, Finnair flew a demonstration flight from Helsinki to New York using a new jet fuel containing 10 percent recycled cooking oil; Lufthansa took off on Europe’s first scheduled commercial flight powered partly by sugar-based bio-kerosene; and this year British Airways embarks on Green Sky London, a project to convert city garbage into sustainable low-carbon jet fuel.
On the horizon: plans to build windowless airplanes that aim to further conserve fuel by replacing passenger windows with flexible lightweight display screens.
Has the age of flying green arrived?
Not quite. With tourism on the march—the World Tourism Organization predicts nearly two billion globe-trotters by 2030—more flights mean more planet-threatening carbon in the atmosphere.
Air travelers can take small but helpful steps, such as buying carbon offsets and flying during daylight hours, when plane contrails reflect the sun’s heat back into space and reduce the climate impact.
But tackling the problem will require far-reaching actions by decision-makers. If the aviation industry can unite around sustainable best practices the way it rallied in 2012 to defeat a carbon tax on airline pollution, we will see faster and better solutions for flying green.
The airline industry profits from selling nature—think travel posters and TV ads flaunting unspoiled tropical islands and pristine wilderness—so its leaders must ramp up their efforts to save it.
This piece, written by Costas Christ, first appeared in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @costaschrist.