What is a green flight? Eco-friendly ways to travel

What are green flights, how do they impact the environment, and how can we make air travel more eco-friendly?

The Swedish term flygskam – translating to “flight shame” – gained traction when climate activist Greta Thunberg refused to fly her way to a United Nations summit. Instead, she arrived via sail yacht after a treacherous crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. As global environmental concerns grow, many travellers like Thunberg are pledging to reduce their air travel.

Unfortunately, not all of us have the means or time to hop on a wind-powered yacht next time we go abroad. So what about eco-friendly flights? Does such a thing exist? Here’s what you need to know about sustainable air travel and its greener alternatives.

Heathrow Airport new passegnger tax

How does air travel impact the environment?

If you’re wondering how bad flying is for the environment, the answer might not be what you’re hoping to hear. Air travel is down there among the least climate-friendly modes of transport in the world. Global aviation is responsible for 3.5% of all drivers of climate change, which includes – but is not limited to – carbon dioxide emissions. The Boeing 747 uses an average of four litres of fuel per second (yes, you read correctly), which equates to roughly ten to 11 tonnes of fuel per hour while cruising. Take-off is even more fuel-intensive. Between 90,000 and 100,000 flights take to the skies every single day, according to Statista’s global aviation survey

“Given the dependence of aviation on burning fossil fuel, its significant CO2 and non-CO2 effects, and the projected fleet growth, it is vital to understand the scale of aviation’s impact on present-day climate change,” says David Lee, professor of Atmospheric Science at Manchester Metropolitan University and Director of its Centre for Aviation, Transport, and the Environment research group, in a press release from the university.

Beyond harmful greenhouse gas emissions, a plane’s exhaust engine creates contrails (water vapour trails) that can result in the formation of cirrus cloud cover. These clouds reflect sunlight during the day and trap heat during the night, contributing to increases in atmospheric temperatures. So, are there ways to reduce your eco footprint while travelling by air? Let’s take a look. 

Contrails in sky created by planes
Vapour trails trap heat in the earth’s upper atmosphere © Adobe Stock

What is a green flight?

You’ve probably seen the little ‘green choice’ icon on your flight selection page before, but it’s not always clear what this entails. ‘Green flight’ can mean several things depending on the airline. It can involve carbon offsetting, lower carbon emissions than the average flight, diversified fuel types or more efficient fuel consumption.

Carbon neutral flights 

Many airlines label their flights as carbon neutral or offer a carbon neutral option. This doesn’t mean that the flight produces zero carbon emissions – this would be a carbon-free flight. Rather, the airline offsets its carbon emissions by reducing or preventing the same amount of carbon in the atmosphere as the flight produces. This is usually done by funding external, carbon-offsetting projects. 

Jetstar’s Fly Carbon Neutral program supports the protection of vital rainforests in South America and wind power farms in India, while the Qantas carbon neutral initiative helps to restore critical wetland habitats. Unfortunately, there’s no tangible way for the public to test if these programs genuinely offset the flight’s exact quantity of carbon emissions.

How can I tell if a flight is carbon neutral or green?

You might have to do a little bit of digging, but it won’t take long. Nowadays, most plane operators will display their environmental policies and initiatives on their websites. Some will even tell you the amount of emissions produced by each flight.

If you’re on the lookout for a handy comparison tool, Skyscanner signals when flights produce lower carbon emissions than average when you search flights on their website. Google’s flight search also has an ‘emissions’ sorting function that ranks flight options in order of their carbon emission estimates.

Compare flight emissions with Google flight search
Select ‘Emissions’ under ‘Sort by’ to compare green flights on Google flight search

Is flying becoming more sustainable?

There’s no getting around the fact that every passenger creates a carbon footprint. That being said, many governments and aviation companies are implementing other ways to mitigate the environmental impacts of flying.

In May 2023, France banned short-haul flights as part of a greater initiative to reduce the country’s emissions. Only three travel routes (Paris Orly to Nantes, Bordeaux and Lyon) have been cancelled so far as there are a number of conditions preventing the banning of other routes. The flight must last two and a half hours or less, have a train or bus alternative of six hours or less, and allow customers to return on the same day. Plus, the ban excludes connecting journeys outside of France and private jets. Despite this, France does appear to be taking a step in the right direction by encouraging travellers to make more eco-conscious choices.

On top of governmental changes to transport policies, aviation companies are producing more efficient aircraft that require less fuel to operate. The Airbus A350 XWB and Boeing 787 Dreamliner are examples of such models, used by airlines such as Jetstar, Qantas, Scoot, Air New Zealand, Air India, Vietnam Airlines and Etihad Airways. 

Many airlines are also turning to more sustainable fuel types, including Etihad, which powered a Boeing 787 Dreamliner using a blend of jet and biofuel made from a type of succulent plant. Oslo Airport, Stockholm Arlanda Airport and Los Angeles International Airport are providing airlines with sustainable biofuel supplies in an effort to bring down carbon emissions.

Japan Airlines Airbus A350-900 airplane at Tokyo Haneda Airport in Japan
Japan Airlines Airbus A350-900 taking off at Haneda Airport © Adobe Stock

Are green flights worth booking? 

If more climate-friendly transport alternatives are available (and reasonable for you to travel on), then you should think twice before booking a green flight. The problem is that, while most green flights aim to offset or reduce carbon emissions, planes are still responsible for many other negative effects. In fact, two-thirds of the climate warming impacts attributed to flying are caused by contrails, nitrogen oxide, soot and harmful aerosols. Being a true eco-warrior would mean choosing not to fly at all, or at the very least, reducing your air travel. 

If it’s necessary to fly to your destination, then green flights are a worthwhile option to consider. Green flights can help cut down humanity’s environmental imprint – and every action counts. Whether it be paying a few extra dollars to offset your flight’s emissions or choosing to fly on board a more sustainable aircraft, there are ways to fly more sustainably. If you’re not in a position to forego flying, green flights seem to be the best choice available. 

What are the greenest ways to travel?

Despite the high carbon output associated with air travel, car transport makes up more of the global emissions than aircraft do. But this doesn’t necessarily mean flying is better for the environment than driving. Even though researchers are working on new ways to reduce the environmental impact of plane travel, the airline industry is growing at a rapid pace of five percent per year. On top of this, gases from flights are released directly into the upper atmosphere, where they remain for many years and trigger stronger chemical reactions than the same gases do at low altitudes. 

Flying is the most environmentally harmful mode of transport. BBC reports that cars aren’t significantly greener than planes in terms of CO2 emissions per person – unless you’re using an electric car or have passengers filling every seat. Buses are more sustainable than cars, but nowhere near as eco-friendly as trains, which are one of the greenest ways to travel. Consider Europe, with its high-speed TGV and hydro-powered Swiss railway or Japan, home to the magnetic bullet train. According to Defra’s greenhouse conversion factors, coaches are also a great option for climate-conscious travel.

Sustainable train travel in Switzerland
Reduce your carbon footprint with Swiss SBB railway travel © Adobe Stock

How to travel more sustainably

Looking for greener ways to travel? Here are some tips:

  • Find out if it’s really necessary to fly and, where possible, choose carbon-free or low-emission alternatives
  • Replace short-haul flights with trains or buses 
  • Consider swapping out international travel for domestic or local staycations 

Sometimes you don’t have the option not to fly. In this case, there are some easy ways to reduce your environmental impact when in transit:

  • Take the most direct route possible: less time for you and less emissions for the environment!
  • Pack light: the weight of a plane is directly tied to its fuel consumption.
  • Fly economy: first class and business class seats contribute a significantly higher share of the plane’s ecological footprint, according to a 2019 Department for Energy Security and Net Zero study.
  • Offset your carbon footprint with green flights: many airlines allow you to do this for a few extra dollars at checkout. 
  • Choose planes that burn less fuel or use biojet fuel: it never hurts to do a little research.
  • Download a digital boarding pass instead of printing a paper one.

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