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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Warren

Sustainable travel: How can you expand your worldview without harming the environment?

Updated: Jul 5

Air travel seems to pair perfectly with clear skies. But are the two at odds?

Photo by Stephen Rahn

As globalization increases, families, friends, and businesses are divided by borders and seas. 
For many, staying stationary is no longer an option. But as the world races towards 2030, when the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals are due to be met, modern pleasures associated with fossil fuels must be reinvented. 

Global CO2 emissions from aviation have doubled since the 1980s. Air travel emissions could make up a quarter of the world’s remaining CO2 budget to limit global warming to a 1.5°C increase by 2050. 

As 2050 looms closer, how can global travel survive in a world threatened by climate change?

Governmental policies are vital
Since 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) has guided global sustainable aviation policy. The U.S. has implemented similar carbon-offsetting schemes and created the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge in order to increase the production of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs). The European Union created Destination 2050, pledging to make all flights within and departing from the EU reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Destination 2050 uses carbon-pricing schemes, SAFs, and energy innovations. 

Some policies have gotten more creative. For example, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration awards millions of dollars in grants to airports that reduce emissions not just through jets, but also through electricity, vehicles, vegetation, and other creative ideas. 

Governmental focus on sustainable aviation allows travel to continue alongside sustainable development.

The private sector must commit to sustainable development
Airlines are joining the quest for eco-friendly air travel. In 2022, the British airline EasyJet partnered with Rolls-Royce to launch the world’s first successful modern aero-engine on clean hydrogen. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines allows passengers to purchase SAFs for their flights. AirFrance is measuring indirect carbon emissions through its supply chain. For example, the company has revamped its catering to be more sustainable.

However, airlines are waiting for SAF production to occur on a massive scale before they commit to replacing fossil fuels with green alternatives. 

Neste is the world’s leading sustainable fuel company. Based in Finland, Neste has partnered with Delta Airlines and is pushing SAFs to be integrated globally. They have also partnered with Signature Aviation at the Los Angeles International Airport to provide SAFs to all flights in the business travel terminal. Additionally, in May, Vietnam Airlines flew its first flight with SAFs through its partnership with Neste. Other major SAF companies include SkyNRG, LanzaJet, World Energy, and more.

Neste is an example of private companies creating international partnerships to foster sustainable innovation. 

Sustainable aviation fuels are key
International market-based schemes that tax carbon emissions or reward sustainable fuel use, such as CORSIA, are limited in their effectiveness. According to a 2021 study, “it is the collective consensus that we need carbon pricing to address climate change, but the reality is we have very little evidence to substantiate this claim.” The mass-use of SAFs cannot happen until investments foster mass-production. 

Policies like Destination 2050 and the SAF Grand Challenge need to be met with private sector ambition and consumer decisions. According to a 2023 report by the Global Business Travel Association, “the private sector continues to look toward government to provide financial incentives for the green transition, rather than acknowledging that sustainability must be a shared investment.” 

Private companies with direct control of aviation must make major investments in sustainability by supporting SAF production and use, reducing fossil fuels, and going beyond government-mandated policies. 

Furthermore, business travel is a staple of the current economy. Business fliers account for 75% of airline profits. Business travel must prioritize sustainability by looking for the most sustainable options. 

Measuring carbon emissions of business flights, looking into SAF use of airlines, and continuing research can promote sustainability without limiting global connections. In fact, prioritizing sustainability in travel will only deepen these bonds.

Sustainable air travel and the SDGs
SDG 8: Good jobs and economic growth
The Air Transport Action Group estimates that the industrial growth of SAF production can create 14 million jobs. Many of these jobs will be created in developing countries that can help produce biofuel crops for SAFs.

SDG 9: Industries, innovation, and infrastructure
 If aviation falls behind sustainable development, climate change will eventually catch up with the industry. By shifting aviation onto a sustainable system, air travel can flourish in an eco-friendly world. Business and industry can grow, people can connect, and the environment can prosper.

SDG 13: Protect the planet
Aviation emissions are one of the hardest sectors to reduce. As other industrial sectors decarbonize, reports estimate that globalization will increase the number of fliers and therefore worsen the environmental impact of air travel. The only way to accommodate globalization and environmentalism is to make air travel sustainable.

SDG 17: Partnerships for the goals
In 2023, nearly 4 million seats traveled between New York’s JFK airport and London’s Heathrow airport alone. Air travel allows people to broaden their perspectives and connect beyond borders. The silver lining of reducing aviation emissions is that the world must build global connections to solve this problem. 

Photo by Nick Youngson

If we want global interconnectedness to prosper alongside our planet, what can we do?
Travel is essential to the global values of cooperation, cultural exchange, and connection. By addressing aviation emissions through forming international partnerships, raising ambitions in the private sector, and investing in sustainable aviation fuels, airplanes and clear skies can go hand-in-hand.
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