If it really is a small world after all, aviation has made it that way. It’s no understatement to say that Life As We Know It would be something quite different without air travel. Flying the friendly skies, however, has some decidedly unfriendly side effects, and the biggest one by far is the impact the world’s airline fleet is having on the climate crisis.
A year old report from the U.S. Department of Transportation and others, once buried but recently unearthed, says that the 87 billion gallons of kerosene burned in airplane engines each year are adding 20% more CO2 to the atmosphere than previously reported and that airline operations could emit as much as 1.5 billion tons of CO2 a year by 2025—an amount equal to half of all emissions produced by the 457 million people of the European Union.
That’s a fairly staggering number, and all the carbon offsets on the planet won’t be able to keep up with it. So cleaner burning (not to mention renewable) jet fuels are going to be a necessity if we want to keep our collective wings and get where we need to go. So it is that a recent test of alternative aviation biofuels takes on new importance.
From outward appearances, the test wasn’t much: A 747 flew a short demonstration flight with one engine burning a mix of 75% traditional kerosene and 25% plant-derived alcohols. The eco-community largely derided the exercise as a PR stunt and food advocates were horrified at the thought of the amount of arable cropland that would need to be converted to fuel production to fly the world’s jets.
But here’s the thing…we have to start somewhere. And this is what it looks like when we do. You don’t just hit a switch one day and start filling planes with alcohol. You put a little bit in one engine and see, just for starters, if you can get the thing off the ground. They did. It worked. And now we’re on to the next step, whatever that will be. The point is that the airlines are working on it. What they accomplished is not nearly as important as the fact that they accomplished it. And I think anyone who derides them because they don’t like what the first move looked like is completely missing the point. Let’s save our scorn for the day when it’s clear it’s all come to nothing. In the meantime, let’s hope that day never arrives and save our own energies for supporting any and all efforts to do something constructive.
Yes, the food vs. fuel conundrum is a problem But one of the test’s sponsors believes that algae could produce enough alcohol for the world’s airline fleet using an area no larger than West Virginia. And sweet sorghum might be another good alternative. Whatever it is, as long as we can keep shaving a percentage point off total global CO2 emissions here and a percentage off there, we’ll get there. Because that’s how it’s going to happen. One percent at a time whether it’s drywall or carbon conversion or airline fuel. From the ways we can help at home to the ways industries like the airlines can make a difference, the big picture is always painted by many small brushstrokes.
That’s how we’re going to clean up our act and get the coming sustainable world off the ground.