What Aviation Efficiency can Teach us about the Power of Small Gestures

It is entirely appropriate that big ticket efforts to reduce global warming causing greenhouse gas emissions are at the center of global climate efforts, however, there is also a need for small gestures. Such actions can make a big difference if repeated often. Governments (nations and subnational), public companies and private organizations all have a critical role to play and so do individuals. Efficiency in the aviation industry is a good illustration of how seemingly small efforts can make a difference. Something as simple as painting a plane with a light color can have a major impact. White paint is lighter than black paint because it has less pigment. Dark paint can add the equivalent weight of 8 passengersé  Painting an airplane white also decreases heat and increases durability.

Even something as simple as changing paper stock on airplanes can add up to major reductions in fuel use and concomitant emissions. In 2018 United Airlines switched to lighter paper for their inflight magazines. This action reduced the weight by only 1 ounce but when applied across the fleet United Airlines saved 170,000 gallons of fuel worth almost $300,0000.  Japan’s Nippon airlines has encouraged travelers to urinate before boarding and according to their calculations this will reduce weight and decrease carbon emissions by 5 tons per month. 

The efficiency of the aviation industry has doubled in the last quarter century. According to the IEA the fuel intensity of new commercial jet aircraft fell an average 1.3 percent per year between 1968 and 2014.  A recent Virgin Airline study showed that with careful planning we can make air travel more efficient and decrease fossil fuel use by as much as 30 percent. 

All of these efforts are laudable but they are nowhere near enough. We will need to do much more if we are to keep temperatures from surpassing the upper threshold limit (1.5-2C above preindustrial norms). While we should make air travel more efficient, these efforts should not obscure the reality that we must find alternatives to fossil fuel powered jet propulsion. The transportation sector is a major source of emissions and air travel is one of the most significant single contributor to climate change.  Although it is no easy feat we need to decarbonize through electrification. The point is that efficiency in the context of traditional air travel is grossly inadequate. We need alternative technologies (eg electrification, hydrogen, airships etc) all of which could benefit from efficiency initiatives such as the weight reduction efforts reviewed above. 

Efficiency efforts also apply to individual lifestyle changes. We can personally cut our carbon footprints through simple gestures like turning down heating and cooling, and such actions can have a major impact when they are repeated often enough. However, these gestures are only meaningful in conjunction with large scale actions that have global impact.  As climate scientist Michael Mann explained, trying to shift responsibility to individual small actions without addressing major sources of emissions is the new face of climate denial.

Once again small gestures are nowhere near enough to curb global warming, but they are an important and necessary adjunct to the larger more dramatic efforts like replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources of power or finding alternatives to traditional aviation.