Friday |  June 16, 2023

Most sustainability experts will scoff at the idea of “sustainable” and “airlines” in the same sentence.

“Today, at this moment, it’s not yet realistic to fly fully sustainably,” says Pedro Piris-Cabezas, a global transportation expert and economist at the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund.

But that doesn’t mean the aviation sector isn’t becoming more conscious of its environmental effects and the pressing need for change in the face of a worsening climate disaster.

According to Sola Zheng, an aviation researcher at the non-profit International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), “in the past few years, public awareness of aviation’s climate impact has definitely put pressure on airlines to strengthen their sustainability strategy.” She claims that growing climate rules, financial pressure, and consumer pressure have all combined to give the sector “a strong push towards airline decarbonization efforts.”

Environmentalists believe that this transformation cannot come soon enough. Commercial aviation, which before to the pandemic carried more than 4.5 billion passengers yearly, is responsible for 2.5% of annual worldwide CO2 emissions, and it is anticipated that flight demand will considerably increase.

According to Piris-Cabezas, aviation would rank among the top 10 emitters of greenhouse gases worldwide if it were a nation.

In response, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a world trade organization that represents about 300 international airlines, approved a resolution in 2021 to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, which would mean it would remove from the atmosphere at least as much pollution that contributes to global warming as it emits, in accordance with high-stakes UN-set targets established to ensure a “livable climate.”

In order to shape the industry’s transition, the government is also considering new regulations. This is especially true in Europe, where some short-haul flights are currently prohibited, and where Denmark and Sweden want to end the use of fossil fuels on domestic flights by 2030.

According to Nicolas Jammes, a spokesman for IATA, “the industry and regulators are in agreement that net-zero needs to be reached by 2050.” “The industry has no other option. If it wishes to continue expanding or carrying out its current operations, it must be sustainable.

The airline industry’s emissions targets, according to Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways, were little more than a “PR exercise,” and aviation is on track to miss the 2050 deadline.

Let’s not deceive ourselves, he urged. “I can promise you that we won’t even meet the goals we have set for 2030. because not enough raw materials are available to produce enough SAF (Sustainable Aviation Fuel).

The primary issue is aviation’s continuous reliance on aircraft fueled by fossil fuels. According to Zheng, using alternative energy is necessary for flying sustainably.

In order to reduce carbon emissions from upcoming flights, airlines are putting a lot of money on a variety of greener alternative fuel sources, including cutting-edge technologies like electric, hybrid, and, in the future, hydrogen.

Although they are still in the early stages, a number of developing technologies have the potential to significantly reduce the sector’s carbon footprint, according to Zheng.

Low-carbon sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF, a biofuel substitute generated from waste products and renewable biomass that can lower emissions by as much as 80%, offers greater quick adoptability and serves as the industry’s primary means of achieving its larger decarbonization targets. The fuel is anticipated to achieve 65% of the commercial aviation industry’s 2050 net-zero requirements and is already being tested on a number of airlines. SAF rules will soon be implemented in the European Union.

Because it is currently the only method of decarbonization that has been proven effective, Jammes argues it is a crucial component. SAF, however, is constrained by high costs, a lack of supply, and environmental issues related to manufacture of low integrity; it only made up 0.1% of the world’s total jet fuel consumption in 2021, according to data from ICCT.

Environmentalists advise that since aviation’s decarbonization overhaul is still in its early stages, eco-conscious travelers should choose to fly less and look into alternative, more climate-friendly modes of transportation and travel. This is because flying has a large carbon footprint.

Considering that travel search tools like Google Flights and Kayak may now show estimated per-passenger CO2 emissions alongside flight search results, Zheng advises consumers who do fly to look for less-emitting flights. She also recommends looking into confirmed SAF airline credit buy-ins as they become available rather than relying on a questionable airline’s carbon offset schemes, which are frequently unvetted and allow for a business-as-usual approach.

Piris-Cabezas advises consumers to evaluate the legitimacy of airline claims and to put pressure on airlines for more openness on sustainability. She also warns that industry greenwashing is rampant. He claims that “airlines’ green claims” frequently proliferate faster than their fact-checking departments care to support with substantial proof.

Zheng agrees, saying, “It is very misleading to label anyone in the aviation industry sustainable until we see actual decarbonization happen and have the rate of decarbonizing overtake the growth in traffic.”

However, according to Jammes, those who fly can anticipate a fast changing environment in terms of airline sustainability. Customers must “understand that it can’t happen overnight” and “it won’t come without challenges, that’s for sure,” but he asserts that when it comes to new sustainability-focused technologies,“the future is going to be exciting.”

While airlines have much work to do yet, these seven carriers have introduced an array of sustainability measures including the early adoption of alternative-fuel technology, plastic and food waste-reduction programs, SAF credits, eco-friendly materials, and more.

United Airlines

By 2028, United intends to launch a regional US airline service using 100 hybrid-electric 30-passenger aircraft from the Swedish startup Heart Aerospace.

The airline also invested in the manufacturing of 5 billion gallons of SAF, which includes biofuel generated from microalgae, making it the largest airline commitment in the world. These partnerships are among several innovative ones the airline is supporting in the development of electric and hydrogen technologies.

Additionally, United recently launched a Sustainable Flight Fund that enables customers and business partners to invest in SAF development. Additionally, the website now shows estimated CO2 emissions beside to search results for flights.


The largest regional airline in Scandinavia, Widere, which is based in Norway, claims to be on pace to become one of the first completely emissions-free carriers.

The entire domestic fleet of the airline will be replaced with all-electric aircraft developed in a partnership between the airline, Rolls-Royce, and Italian aerospace company Tecnam by 2028, with the introduction of 11-passenger electric commuter planes scheduled for 2026. By 2040, all short-distance domestic aircraft in Norway are expected to be electric.


While numerous airlines have hinted about electric flights, Scandinavian airline SAS is the first to accept seat bookings for commercial hybrid-electric flights in 2028. These flights will be aboard 30-passenger Heart Aerospace aircraft on routes in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

The airline has ambitious goals, one of which is to reduce CO2 emissions by 25% by 2025 and then completely phase them out in Scandinavia by 2030.

The airline has just started to give passengers dedicated rates that also include the direct purchase of biofuels. The company also supports numerous other clean-energy and SAF development programs.

Wizz Air

Due to its younger, more fuel-efficient fleet (the majority of its Airbus A321neo aircraft are under five years old), high-occupancy flights, and direct route network that does not use connecting flights that emit carbon dioxide, European low-cost carrier Wizz Air claims to have one of the lowest carbon emissions-impact per passenger in the industry.

The airline, which has won sustainability awards, is also significantly investing in SAFs and pursing hydrogen propulsion planes alongside Airbus. Passengers on Wizz Air may anticipate biodegradable amenities and recycled materials within the aircraft, such as the waste-leather couches.

Etihad Airways

Due to increased operating efficiencies, Etihad Airways, one of the two national carriers for the United Arab Emirates, has cut the use of single-use plastics by 80% and CO2 emissions by 25% since 2019.

Additionally, the airline collaborates with Boeing as part of the “Greenliner” program, which focuses on decarbonization and using the carrier’s fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliners as test beds for SAF and other environmentally friendly technology.

For its Airbus A350s, Etihad has a program called “Sustainable50” with a similar theme.

In the future, the airline intends to use SAF made from CO2, and as part of its Etihad Mangrove Forest project, it has planted tens of thousands of carbon-absorbing trees.

Etihad received recognition for its innovations when rating firm named it the “Environmental Airline of the Year” for 2022 and 2023.

Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines wants to achieve net-zero carbon emissions even sooner than 2050, which is the target year for the majority of the world’s largest airlines.

The airline has substantially invested in SAF (including CO2-derived versions) to achieve this goal and is laser-focused on fuel efficiency. Additionally, a cooperation to convert one of its regional aircraft into a hybrid hydrogen-electric aircraft with ZeroAvia, a US-based producer of hydrogen-electric aircraft, has been revealed.

Customers will also notice a reduction in single-use plastics on board, such as the use of paper cups instead of plastic ones and boxed water in place of plastic water bottles. The line also composts some culinary waste, such as coffee grounds.

Air Canada

Air Canada, the national airline of Canada, has a purchase agreement in place for 30 of Heart Aerospace’s 30-passenger hybrid-electric aircraft, which will fly on regional routes, and is targeting 2028 as the year of electric flight.

The airline has also drastically decreased the amount of single-use plastics onboard (in line with Canada’s decision to prohibit most single-use plastics by year’s end) and made sizeable investments to speed up the production of SAF in Canada.

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