YHD Blogs – Aviation & The Environment

This article is part of our “Youth Head Delegate Blog Series” — written by our YHDs! 

By David L. 

Being an innovation that connects millions of people across the globe, the word aviation has become synonymous with the fast-paced nature of humanity’s development. Lending itself to facilitating commerce, building families, and ferrying many to their vacation destinations, it’s become inextricably and undeniably tied to our way of life. Yet for all of its benefits it has provided to society, the damage it causes to nature is still overlooked by many. In this blog post we’ll cover the three main ways aviation affects an ecosystem, and what’s being done to counteract these negative effects it has on our biosphere.


Firstly, the emissions. Like other modes of transport, aircraft rely on fossil fuels to keep them in the air too, and they create far more emissions than land-based vehicles. Emissions consist of various chemicals and molecules, such as soot, carbon dioxide, unburnt hydrocarbons (such as kerosene, a common jet fuel), and nitrogen oxides, among others, all of which are poisonous to organisms and form a thick blanket that trap heat in the form of light energy, “warming” the Earth as we know it. According to the David Suzuki Foundation, a single flight’s carbon footprint can be equal to a car’s yearly emissions. It’s expected at the current rate emissions could grow to a whopping 300% over the current amount by 2050 – that’s over a billion tons of carbon dioxide (a common greenhouse gas) alone, per year. This isn’t even to mention the fact that such emissions are released at a higher altitude, virtually guaranteeing their presence for centuries to come.


Second, aircraft generate considerable noise and light in all phases – whether that be takeoff, landing, or during a cruise. Aside from the impact it can have on humans (in some cases contributing to sleeplessness, heart disease, and hypertension), the sounds and illumination necessary for aircraft safety disturb and disrupt populations of organisms reliant on a clear, quiet, and sometimes dark environment to survive – among these nocturnal species (such as owls) and migratory flocks of birds (like Canada geese) which stop over regularly during migration. Directly, data from the US’s Federal Aviation Administration show upwards of 40 bird strikes a day. Indirectly, airport staff regularly cull (a term for selective slaughter) bird populations around airports and flight paths to reduce the likelihood of such a strike, whereas other passive methods such as reducing food sources were found to be more effective.


Last but not least, the cost of building, maintaining, and eventually dismantling aircraft simply isn’t worth the environmental damage it wreaks. So far we’ve discussed how aircraft can have a tangible impact, but we haven’t covered how the suppliers work in tandem to keep them flying, with impacts of their own. As previously mentioned, aircraft require a lot of fuel, but where does that fuel come from, and what happens to it? After the oil is extracted from the ground in the first place, aircraft fuel, such as kerosene, is distilled through a process called “cracking” from heavy crude oil/petroleum, all of which requires an inordinate amount of fresh water and releases more GHGs into the air. Special chemical compounds used to de-ice aircraft can and will leach into nearby bodies of water, with compounds like glycols and acetates attracting microbial decomposers, which take oxygen from the water and deprive other organisms like fish of it, drastically altering the food web.


To a consumer, perhaps, all of this makes no difference – a cheap ticket price belies the true cost of visiting some far-off place that companies cleverly spin to make it as if it’s an inexpensive, quick, and one-in-a-lifetime chance to voyage to the exotic locale of your dreams. That stops here – read on to see what’s happening and how to get involved.


A great variety of solutions to the problems listed above are already being developed by the professionals. Biofuels and hydrogen fuels (known as SAFs – Sustainable Aviation Fuels) which produce significantly less or safe emissions, have been tested by airports (suppliers) as well as aircraft companies (consumers) in locations like Denmark, Australia, and Singapore. Speaking of airports, better air traffic control to make flights more efficient has been a point made by CANSO, the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation – an international organisation representing air traffic controllers. As public opinion slowly turns against the pollution happening before our very eyes, companies, like Vancouver’s local seaplane service Harbour Air, have pledged to, or are already in, the process of offsetting their emissions and becoming carbon neutral.


Lastly, a crucial aspect that the fossil fuel industry uses to keep environmental movements in check is denial – not so much outright ignorance of the facts at hand, but discrediting and minimizing individual actions to the point where people begin to ask themselves the worth of their actions – that real change can only be accomplished by scientists and state actors. That’s false. 


Simple actions can range from booking economy to improve the aircraft’s efficiency, to taking a non-stop flight when possible to prevent emissions from takeoff and landing. Do your research as certain companies have better standards and will fly full loads of passengers per flight as a means to be more efficient with their fleet. Or, you could go the *ahem* extra mile and cut flying altogether, or fly only when it’s absolutely necessarily. In addition, when flying, you can purchase carbon offsets, which is money that you spend that goes towards preserving forests and other methods of capturing carbon so as to balance your footprint, though by how much it balances it is a matter of debate.


Even easier, you could sign petitions to governments or the International Civil Aviation Organisation (shockingly, international aviation isn’t exactly held accountable under the Paris Agreement, with the states signing and left to manage their own economic sectors to remain below the temperature limit) and elect climate-friendly politicians, as well as push for carbon pricing for jet aircraft in law, all of which you can do from the comfort of your own home or neighbourhood.


All of this article boils down to a central theme and tenet common in the fight for saving the Earth – making sure we are capable of differentiating what we need and what we want. Next time you or your parents are considering going somewhere, step back from the consumerism of it all and ask yourself – is this something I need and is it sustainable?