Is jet travel becoming the dirtiest way to cross the planet?

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1. Our insatiable appetite for jet travel

The ability to hop on a plane and reach Glasgow, Berlin or Tokyo in a matter of hours is something many of us take for granted. Jet travel has opened up our world for adventure, business and trade – and underpins the global society we live in.

But aviation comes at an undeniable cost – carbon emissions. While radical advances have been made in low-carbon fuel options for cars; passenger aircraft are a long way behind.

With eight million of us flying everyday and the numbers increasing with every passing year, can a sustainable future for global air travel be found?

2. Age of the jet set

There were 3.1 billion air passengers in 2013. This is predicted to rise to more than 6.4 billion by 2030.

Passenger data source: Marc Dierikx (1961-1969 and 1972); World Bank (1970-1971 and 1973-2012); IATA (2013 and 2017) and ICAO (2030)

Since the first commercial flight took off from Florida in 1914, there has been no stopping the rise in passenger air travel. The jet-setting celebrities of the 1960s paved the way for a new era of foreign holidays and global workplaces. Now, passengers numbers are increasing at a phenomenal pace each year. This growth is partly driven by the arrival of low cost airlines, worldwide. The largest growth is being seen in Asia Pacific and the Middle East. While Atlanta International Airport has for many years seen the busiest passenger traffic, Beijing and Dubai look set to catch up with their rapidly rising traveller numbers.

3. The carbon cost of flying

Burning jet fuel creates huge quantities of carbon dioxide. In 2012, 689 million tonnes of carbon dioxide were emitted from planes – representing 2% of all human carbon emissions. But if air travel continues to grow at the predicted rate, it could contribute a considerably higher proportion by 2050.

Carbon dioxide is a major greenhouse gas – it traps the Sun’s energy within our atmosphere, making the planet's average temperature rise.

Most climate scientists think that man-made greenhouse gases have caused most of the global warming since the mid-20th century. The temperature of our planet has risen by around 0.8C over the past 150 years, with further increases predicted in the coming decades.

If temperatures increase more than 2C from their levels before the industrial revolution, we could see dangerous changes for our world. We've already seen rises in global sea levels, shrinking of ice sheets and more frequent patterns of extreme weather.

If countries like the UK are to meet their stated climate change targets and make significant reductions in carbon emissions, lowering the carbon cost of air travel will be vital.

4. Reducing the carbon footprint of planes

Some progress has been made in the past decades to reduce the carbon footprint of jet planes. However, there’s a limit to what can be achieved by these means.

5. Is zero carbon flight possible?

To truly wipe the carbon footprint of aircraft, we need to find a radical new zero-carbon fuel. Could any of these four innovations be the future of air travel?

Biofuels

Processing oils from biological sources such as used cooking oil, plants and algae

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Biofuels

Is it possible?

Up to 50% biojet fuel blends are now available, emitting up to 80% less greenhouse gas than jet planes. But their cost has made commercialisation difficult.

Electric planes

Powering lightweight aircraft using electricity

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Electric planes

Is it possible?

A two-seater electric light aircraft can fly for an hour at 185kph with no carbon emissions. But packing more energy into the batteries is a challenge.

Solar energy

Harnessing the abundant energy of our Sun

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Solar energy

Is it possible?

A plane covered in 17,000 solar panels has flown for over 76 hours non-stop. But it lacks strength – it carries only one pilot and can’t fly through turbulence.

Hydrogen fuel

Burning liquid hydrogen similarly to rocket engines. Image: Getty Images

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Hydrogen fuel

Is it possible?

Test flights have successfully flown with hydrogen fuel cells, emitting water as the exhaust. But producing the liquid hydrogen itself has a huge energy cost.