The airline industry is, by all accounts, pushing hard towards net zero.

Alongside the introduction of biofuel and the development of hydrogen-powered planes, airlines have begun using carbon removal technology to offset those emissions deemed unavoidable. But many of the changes accompanying the offsets are decades away from becoming viable, and some may have very little effect even then.

So, if the dream of sustainable aviation is of the ‘pipe’ variety, what good does it do to hype up announcements of small advances? All this excitement does is salve the worries of guilty frequent flyers, ensuring they continue to pump greenhouse gases out of planes and money into airline shareholders’ pockets.

Direct carbon capture is one instrument in the sustainable aviation toolkit

In March 2024, Swiss International Airlines (SWISS), a part of the German Lufthansa group, signed an agreement with the Zurich-based direct air capture (DAC) company Climeworks to remove its ‘unavoidable’ carbon emissions. Climeworks DAC technology filters carbon dioxide from the ambient air using an adsorption-desorption process. Adsorption is the adhesion of the CO₂ molecules to a surface, and the subsequent desorption is where the CO₂ is released for Climeworks to collect it. Climeworks’ storage partner Carbfix then injects the collected carbon dioxide into the ground.

This deal is Climeworks’ first with an airline. This marks a significant step forward for the industry, showing airlines are willing to go beyond the now-disgraced carbon avoidance offsets and embrace carbon removal—the more measurable and reliable form of offset. Directly removing carbon from the atmosphere sits alongside several other measures airlines are taking to achieve sustainability. These include sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), electric planes, and hydrogen planes. While this might seem like a full roster of net zero strategies, each faces serious application issues.

The feasibility of airlines’ net zero strategies has been called into question

SAF is a type of biofuel that relies on feedstocks like soybean oil, sugarcane, and switchgrass. Firstly, there are ethical concerns here, like whether we should burn perfectly good foodstuffs for fuel when 2022 saw 258 million people facing acute food insecurity. But beyond this, even the climate credentials of SAF are questionable. While burning SAF does produce lower levels of Scope 1 emissions—as in, burning it releases less greenhouse gases (GHG) directly into the atmosphere—the aviation consultant IBA says the Scope 3 emissions of SAF are significantly higher than traditional fossil fuels. This is partly because SAF production is so geographically concentrated in China, Singapore, and the US. Therefore, the fuel itself has significant air miles, partly because of the resources that go into growing the feedstocks. In other words, SAF simply shifts the airlines’ carbon emissions to another part of the value chain.

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Electric and hydrogen-powered planes also face a slew of practical issues. Most notably the fact that they are simply unable to do long-haul flights. While intercity flights and island-hopping on hydrogen planes might be commercially feasible in the mid-2030s, long-haul hydrogen flights will require a complete redesign of the planes we use. This measure is a long way off, potentially only becoming feasible after many countries have pledged to reach net zero.

Boasting about airlines’ green credentials is just another form of greenwashing

So, even though the carbon capture agreement between SWISS and Climeworks is clearly a step in the right direction, the airline industry is facing many hurdles, making it doubtful that it will ever be sustainable. If this is the case, then what is the point of lauding these announcements as great advances towards sustainability?

The short answer: greenwashing. The long answer: these proclamations of how aviation is becoming greener help to soothe the consciences of airlines’ most valued customers, frequent flyers. If people believe flying is on its way to becoming truly sustainable, they will see no reason to change their habits and find other modes of transport (or use collaboration tools for more meetings).

While all industries should be doing what they can to push towards net zero, it may simply be a step too far for the airline industry – and if this is the case, even this article is contributing to the problem. If we genuinely want to achieve net zero, we need to leave the topic of sustainable aviation alone.