Reducing carbon emissions and hitting the golden sweet spot of net zero is a target shared across industries, right around the world. The airline industry is regarded as one of the most highly-polluting sectors, and after the travel boom of summer of 2022, it’s clear that airline providers need to meet demands for more transparency on emissions and actively address their emissions.
The travel and tourism sector had a big summer with record levels of travellers jetting off for some summer adventure, sun and relaxation. Whilst travel might have bounced back, more awareness and insights have come to light surrounding the environmental impact of travel – and it’s not as Instagram-worthy as the travel pics.
The tourism industry is responsible for about 8% of global carbon emissions, aviation alone accounts for 2.5% of global emissions, but 3.5% when we take non-CO₂ impacts on climate into account. According to a report from Oncarbon, travellers are increasingly climate-conscious and they want more sustainability and transparency from their airlines. The survey, which took place this summer, found that 78% of travellers want to travel in a sustainable way, and 67% of travellers want environmental information about the travel products they buy.
While most, if not all, airlines now have some sort of offsetting programme and sustainability initiative in place, questions remain over the extent to which these initiatives are actually making a difference, and there are growing concerns about transparency and greenwashing.
Most airlines have focused on offsetting emissions and replacing old aircraft with new fleets – big, symbolic moves that might hit the headlines and quieten the criticism momentarily – but it’s not making enough tangible effect.
Addressing this, innovative startups are coming up with interesting and impactful innovations and helping steer the airline industry towards a more sustainable and eco-friendly destination.
We caught up with Jussi Ahola, the CEO and Co-founder of Oncarbon to learn more.
By the way: If you’re interested in all things travel, make sure you check out this year’s FutureTravel Summit!
Jussi, what is the key starting point for the aviation industry to reduce carbon emissions?
The first step to reduce emissions is to know them, and to make this information transparent and available to passengers. At Oncarbon, we believe that only an honest account of flight emissions can lead to a positive change in consumer behavior and thus to a reduction in emissions from flying. With greenwashing at its best, consumers often don’t know which travel products are the lowest-emitting ones, and they find it difficult to trust airlines that provide their own numbers, without third-party verification.
Emission numbers today are some of airlines’ best kept secrets – and while there is no universal agreement on some details of how aviation emissions should be calculated, we think it is best for airlines to use verified third-party solutions, offered by startups. Today, a passenger buying an airline ticket sees that “this flight emits 33% less CO2 than the average,” but what is the average? Who calculated that? Based on what data? The key here is to provide the exact data, verified by an independent source, and the context for them. Such a step would increase the airline’s credibility and help avoid any accusations of greenwashing.
Jussi points to the fact that when you buy a flight ticket, you’re offered the chance to offset your flight for as little as €5. But let’s be realistic – is that actually going to make a difference?
Passengers are currently left in a place of ignorance by airlines over the impact of their flight, how much carbon is emitted and as a result of paying €5 what difference has been made. It simply lets the airline have a public display that they are aware of the carbon problem. It’s a reflection of greenwashing, and Jussi believes that startups hold the key to addressing it.
“Offering offsets for €10 and claiming that this “cancels your carbon footprint” is nothing but greenwashing – and more and more passengers are aware of that. In this context, startups are a missing link between passengers and airlines, an “ecolabel” that can really bring more transparency to the area of flight emissions.”
Meaningful tech innovation
So, given the extent of the greenwashing problem, and the lack of transparency and clarity that consumers have over carbon emissions from airlines – just what can be done?
Across industries, there are different tech innovations being developed, piloted and distributed by startups and the aviation industry is no different. Within the aviation sector, innovation can be seen primarily in the following market areas:
- air traffic management solutions
- Flight management systems to help pilots adapt routes to be as fuel efficient as possible
- Sustainable fuel development, such as bio-based and synthetic
- Electric propulsion systems
- Hydrogen and electric-operated aircraft
- Carbon management through high-permanence carbon withdrawal credits and SAF solutions
Startups contributing in these areas include the likes of Safety Line, which offers software solutions to reduce fuel consumption. The startup has developed two key products: OptiClimb which optimizes fuel consumption during the climbing phase and OptiDirect which provides pilots with shortcuts during the flight.
Further, there’s Thales which has developed a complete flight management system called PureFlyt. PureFlyt acts as a co-pilot and helps the pilot optimize flight routes. It continuously calculates the best trajectory at arrival. The goal is to stay as long as possible at altitude, where the engines consume the least amount of fuel, and then to glide down with the engines at idle.
Future of sustainable aviation
Given that startups are developing innovative tech that can make a tangible difference, and the inherent urgency to address aviation’s carbon problem, what does the future look like?
According to Jussi, there are three sustainable options available:
- Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF)
- Hydrogen-powered aircraft
- All-electric and hybrid planes
What are SAF’s?
Sustainable aviation fuels are fuels produced either from biogenic feedstocks such as waste cooking oil, agricultural residues, and municipal waste, or through next-generation SAF technologies such as power-to-liquid from recycled CO2 and carbon capture technologies. Bio-based SAFs are now considered to have the potential to reduce aviation GHG emissions by 20-80% on a life-cycle CO2 emissions basis as compared to fossil fuels.
The good news is that SAF can be blended with conventional jet fuel and many airlines are already using them and offering to purchase SAF quotas for their passengers. Wider use of SAF is also likely to be encouraged by regulators. The European Union proposed forcing fuel suppliers to blend 2% SAF into aviation fuels delivered to EU airports from 2025, 5% from 2030, and 63% SAF by 2050. The United Kingdom announced before COP26 that it is aiming for a 10% SAF share by 2030, and in Norway it has been mandatory for airlines to use SAF in combination with other fuels since 2020.
The problem with SAF, however, is that their share of the global aviation fuel market is still very small. In October 2021, they accounted for only 0.05% of total aviation fuel consumption in Europe, and the current rate of growth is nowhere near what it should be to meet global climate targets. The cost of producing SAF is still high and far above that of jet fuel kerosene, but experts predict that increasing demand and regulatory pressure will lead to more production and lower costs.
What about hydrogen or electric-powered aircraft? Are they viable?
Hydrogen- or electricity-powered aircraft could eliminate CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, but that seems like a very distant perspective, and these types of aircraft are likely to be used only for short-haul flights. Using hydrogen or electricity as an energy source requires a complete redesign of the aircraft, engine, and fuel tank, and production costs remain high.
In addition, current batteries for electric aircraft are heavy and not efficient enough for large aircraft – so they might not take the aircraft too far, and the same distance can easily be covered by car or train today.
Making travel sustainable
Oncarbon’s report found that travellers are now factoring sustainability into their decision-making choices. About 40% of respondents said that environmental footprint plays an important role in their decision-making, and 62% of travellers say they would be willing to make greener travel choices, even if it was less convenient.
These are stats that airline companies need to take into account – and so do the startups and innovators developing solutions in this sector. The demand is there, and now is the time to deliver.
Oncarbon was founded in 2021 in Tampere, Finland. The startup is on a mission to empower travel companies with calculating, communicating, and managing their carbon footprint. In October 2022, Oncarbon started offering airlines and travel agencies an API-based solution to provide their customers with options to purchase SAF and carbon withdrawal credits.