The airline industry is facing an environmental reckoning. Manufacturers and carriers are still hooked on kerosene with alternative biofuels yet to make any real dent in the market and electric planes still decades away.

It’s put airlines and governments in a difficult position but at the moment they still seem determined to paper over the cracks.

The UK government recently revealed it was looking at ways to raise the profile of carbon offset strategies in the transport sector as a way of potentially reducing emissions.

The country’s Department for Transport published a consultation document with a view to collecting responses and then using them to inform any future government policy.

Airlines, which for years have ignored their environmental impact, have started talking about their carbon emissions but the likes of Wizz Air and Ryanair have chosen to frame it in a specific way. They might have more efficient aircraft than some of their rivals but they still burn the same fuel.

The revelation in April that Ryanair had joined Europe’s list of top 10 carbon emitters shows the scale of the problem.

Can We Keep Offsetting the Problem?

While demand keeps rising — global passenger numbers could even double by 2037 — innovations like biofuels are still expensive, costing two to three times more than conventional jet fuel, according to The Economist. What’s more, only a handful of airports are able to offer regular biofuel distribution.

If biofuels are ever going to take off they will need substantial investment from airlines and governments to force through change. One airline boss seemingly committed to their development is Willie Walsh, the CEO of British Airways parent company IAG.

IAG has earmarked $400 million for sustainable fuel over the next 20 years and it wants the UK government to play a more active role in planning for new plants.

“We’re absolutely convinced that this is a real possibility and we’re prepared to put our money to support the development of the infrastructure and also to give the commitment to take the product and that should give encouragement to other investors,” he told analysts on a recent earnings call.

Electric planes are an even less likely savior. Airbus has talked about the 2030s as the period when large commercial aircraft might be available and even this seems wildly optimistic given the level of progress already achieved and the rigorous safety requirements needed.

At the Paris Air Show earlier this year Israeli firm Eviation got plenty of attention for its prototype all-electric passenger aircraft but it can only carry nine passengers 650 miles, or around a fifth of the way between London and New York.

With no imminent way to make flying genuinely greener, governments, airlines and industry bodies are desperate for alternatives, especially as direct emissions from aviation account for more than 2 percent of the global total. Any attempt to remove plastic from aircraft — another environmental issue — could also change things.

“If global aviation was a country, it would rank in the top 10 emitters,” the European Union has noted. 

Carbon offsets are one way of doing this. Essentially they allow individuals or companies to compensate for a particular carbon emitting activity by funding projects that reduce carbon such as reforestation and renewable energy initiatives.

The United Nations’ aviation agency brokered an agreement called the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), which will come into effect in 2021 and it hopes make any growth in the sector carbon neutral.

Boosting the attractiveness of offsets might be one way to reduce the environmental impact of flying but it remains a controversial topic because it shifts the onus away from reducing harmful activities. One study for the European Commission found that 85 percent of offset schemes were pretty much duds.

Tim Johnson, director at UK NGO the Aviation Environment Federation said the UK proposals might help raise awareness of the problem but that the scale of the challenge meant more action was needed.

“Offsetting may raise awareness and provide a small amount of investment for carbon reduction projects but the scale of the sector’s emissions will mean that government and industry action is needed to make planes more efficient, encourage sustainable low carbon or zero carbon fuels, and, as recommended by the Committee on Climate Change, manage demand (since the industry is currently growing faster than it can abate),” he said.

Going Green

Aircraft have always been big polluters but other sectors have gotten better at finding green alternatives, meaning that traveling by plane is likely to become a bigger contributor to global carbon emissions over the coming years.

Wizz Air claims to be the “greenest airline in Europe” but its carbon emissions have only fallen 17 percent in the last seven years. While the likes of the automotive sector looks to be on the cusp of an electric revolution, the idea of using batteries to fly 300 people across the Atlantic is decades away.

“As far as we’re concerned if the aviation industry wants to be green it’s going to have to be smaller than it is,” Andrew Murphy, aviation manager at Brussels-based NGO Transport & Environment told Skift.

This isn’t going to happen without government intervention, a path most countries are unlikely to pursue. Instead many will tinker around the edges like the UK when in reality a more radical path is needed.

“We’d like to see people take a much more reflective approach to whether flying is needed and how they can reduce it,” Murphy said.

Photo Credit: A plane departing East Midlands Airport in the UK. The airline industry needs to come up with an alternative to jet fuel. East Midlands Airport