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‘Green’ travel stunts by airlines can’t erase the environmental impact of flying

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Last week, Frontier Airlines launched a head-scratcher of a public relations stunt.

The budget carrier wanted to raise awareness of its sustainability efforts by putting more people on planes — specifically, those named Green or Greene — and flying them around the country. For free.

Nearly 2,000 fliers took Frontier up on the offer Tuesday, capping an earlier “Green Week” of activity that included “America’s Greenest Flight,” packed with compostable cups and recyclable napkins to, where else, Greenville, S.C. The airline said it “planted enough trees to offset the carbon footprint” of the flight.

“The week highlighted Frontier’s commitment to reducing its carbon footprint and providing a greener overall flying experience,” spokesman Zach Kramer said in an email. “However, our efforts to be a greener airline go beyond a week and have, in fact, been progressing for years."

(Frontier Airlines)

It’s not the only carrier that has trumpeted its efforts during a singular event. In June, United flew the “Flight for the Planet” from Chicago to Los Angeles using a 30/70 mix of biofuel and regular jet fuel. Food and drinks came in containers that were prime for recycling, composting or reusing, and that flight also got carbon offsets. Delta announced its first carbon-neutral flight in July, to be followed by 19 more — all deliveries of new aircraft rather than actual revenue-generating flights with passengers.

But in an era when a “flight shame” movement is catching on in Europe, the United States has backed out of the Paris climate deal and scientists continue to raise the alarm about carbon emissions, do these efforts amount to anything more than gimmicks? Is there such a thing as a “green” flight when aviation is responsible for 2 percent of global man-made carbon emissions?

Some critics say such “greenwashing” efforts can actually be harmful, because they give passengers an inaccurate sense of the toll their travel takes.

“I think it’s worse than nothing, because it perpetuates a myth that we can keep flying like this,” says Peter Kalmus, an earth scientist and author who lives in California. “It’s a reassuring thing.”

Kalmus, who hasn’t taken a flight since 2012 because of his concern over the environmental effects, founded No Fly Climate Sci, part of a movement urging people to fly less. Kalmus said he believes that the only way to get collective action — a Green New Deal, for example — is when the public prioritizes climate and forces politicians to make changes.

“We need this massive transition; all hands on deck,” he says. “So for airlines to encourage more flying — and for this to still be something that’s socially rewarded, something that people like to brag about on social media, all the flying they do — that’s so not in alignment with this massively fast transition we need to be on right now.”

Kalmus said he hopes airline executives are starting to worry about people like him.

“People are starting to realize that, hour for hour, there’s no better way for them to contribute to climate breakdown than by hopping on a plane,” he says.

In Europe, some travelers are turning to trains rather than planes out of concern over carbon emissions; the Dutch airline KLM has even suggested travelers choose rail over air for some journeys. Sweden has been the center of the movement, with air travel dropping 3.8 percent year-over-year in the first six months of this year. A 16-year-old activist named Greta Thunberg, who has been campaigning publicly for action on climate change, is on a sailing yacht now heading to the United States for a United Nations summit in September.

(United Airlines)

Charlie Hobart, a spokesman for United, said his airline doesn’t hear much of that criticism in the United States.

“Europe takes a very different approach to commercial aviation, at least the culture does,” he says. “In a way, we would welcome that sort of passion toward environmental sustainability, because, as we’ve said before, we are working to become the most environmentally conscious airline in the world.”

Hobart said the June flight that was billed as “the most eco-friendly commercial flight of its kind” went further than the airline typically goes in its environmental efforts.

“The Flight for the Planet itself was an opportunity for us to test out those actions and see what it would take both in terms of manpower and in terms of cost to make it happen,” he says. But, he said, United does embrace several measures, such as single-engine taxiing, electric ground operating equipment, and “a small component” of biofuel in every flight out of Los Angeles.

Echoing broader industry goals, United has committed to reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050, compared with 2005 levels.

Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at Teal Group, said many of the efforts that airlines promote — “goofy greenwashing random” stunts; “marginal but well-intentioned stuff” like recycling; and the limited use of biofuels, which may eventually become more widely available — are fine to poke fun at. But, he said, advances in technology that create more efficient engines and airplanes are what really matters, creating 1 to 2 percent improvement in fuel efficiency a year.

“There’s no separate bin for it, there’s no discount for people named Green, there’s no bamboo painted on the side of the plane,” he says. “It’s simply reducing fuel consumption on engines, cutting drag on wings, reducing onboard weight with lighter structures. It’s hard to do a press release on that.”

Read more:

Europe’s flight-shame movement has travelers taking trains to save the planet

What is ‘green travel,’ anyway? A beginner’s guide to eco-friendly vacation planning.

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