Which Airlines Have the Least Environmental Impact?

Guides · 7 min read · Aug 04, 2022
which airlines have the least environmental impact

Carbon emissions have become a trending topic in recent years and for good reasons. The effect of carbon emissions on the environment has come to light and it is definitely concerning. Many different industries are now working hard to reduce their carbon footprint, including aviation. Hence, when travelling many people are beginning to ask which airlines have the least environmental impact on the planet.

In this guide, we want to present to you the airlines which have the lowest carbon emissions and what they are doing in their journey towards net zero carbon emissions. But before we get there, it is essential that we set the context first.

Carbon emissions in aviation

Aviation accounts for around 2% of the carbon emissions generated by human activities according to the Aviation: Benefits Beyond Borders, a website created to “provide clear information on the many measures and initiatives taken by the industry to limit the environmental impact of aviation and provide a resource for people wishing to find out more about the important role aviation plays in the economy and society.”

While many people believe aviation is at the top of the worst industries in environmental matters, the truth is that the report also shows that “the largest contributor to CO2 emissions is electricity (44%). Second is road transport at 17%, followed by buildings at 10%.” This leaves agriculture and forestry out of the equation.

However, it is also true that carbon dioxide is not the only gas emitted by aircraft. There are other emissions like nitrogen oxide and water vapor, and they can have a greater effect at higher altitudes. According to some research, “aviation CO2 emissions should be multiplied by 1.9 times to take account of the added impact of these other gasses at altitude.” Therefore, the real amount of CO2 emissions by aviation rises to 3%. Still, is not as bad as many people believe, especially when compared with other industries as it was mentioned above.

Nevertheless, the aviation industry is committed to reducing carbon emissions, and knowing that the number of passengers grows by 5% every year makes airlines, airports, engine manufacturers, and other organizations within the industry look for solutions to reduce carbon emissions.

A wing of a plane over green fields and a rainbow in the distance.

Net zero carbon emissions commitment

The aviation industry has set a goal, and it is an ambitious one. They strive to make civil transport carbon neutral by 2050. Of course, becoming carbon neutral does not happen overnight and it takes technological developments based on proven science to achieve it.

Let’s take a look at some of the most relevant aspects the airline industry and the rest of the stakeholders are working on to achieve this commitment.

Sustainable aviation fuel to limit greenhouse gas emissions

Sustainable aviation fuels or so-called SAFs are already being used by many airlines. Increasing use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and a transition away from fossil fuels by mid-century is a part of a wider aviation energy shift including the use of low-carbon electricity and green hydrogen.

Carbon footprint reduced with technological developments

Airlines are working hand-in-hand with aircraft and engine manufacturers to develop the technology that will make their flights more fuel-efficient and help them become the most eco-friendly airlines.

Research, development, and deployment of evolutionary and revolutionary airframe and propulsion systems are at the top of the list. This includes the introduction of electric and/or hydrogen-powered aircraft.

Operational efficiency also means fuel efficiency

Continuous improvements in operational efficiency and infrastructure across the system, including at airports and air navigation service providers, help airlines improve fuel efficiency as they strive to minimize excess fuel burn in all phases of flight with the goal of reaching 95-98% overall efficiency as soon as possible.

Investment in carbon offsets

Investment in high-quality carbon offsets in the near-term and carbon removals opportunities are focused on addressing residual CO2 emissions in the longer term. Therefore, the industry is providing full support for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) as an effective transitional measure to stabilize net emissions from international aviation.

With the context set, it is time for us to share the most eco-friendly airlines with you.

Which airlines have less environmental effects?

The airlines that have less environmental effects are those that cover at least one of the following aspects:

  • Have managed to be more fuel efficient.
  • Are currently using sustainable jet fuel.
  • Offer passengers the possibility to purchase carbon offsets.
  • Work towards reducing their fuel consumption.
  • Seek carbon-neutral growth.

Of course, the list above is not comprehensive, and there are airlines doing other things than just being more fuel efficient to become eco-friendly. In any case, we are going to share the most eco-friendly airlines and what they are doing to make it into the list.

The top 8 most eco-friendly airlines

Without further ado, here are the 8 most eco-friendly airlines in the world.

Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines makes the list because it is considered one of the world’s most fuel-efficient airlines. This eco-friendly airline has partnered with the Port of Seattle and Boeing for a Greener Skies program that contributes to environmentally-friendly research projects, a program that has been able to provide innovations in landing techniques, noise pollution, and fuel usage. Their main goal is to power all flights from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with biofuel someday.

Environmentally friendly Alaska Airlines aircraft taking off on a clear day.

American Airlines

American Airlines is found among the most eco-friendly airlines mainly because of its investment in highly efficient modern aircraft. Their improvements to offset carbon emissions per passenger come in different forms that include but are not limited to:

  • Adding winglets to the wing ends of their airplanes.
  • Adopting paperless cabins.
  • Reducing weight for better flight efficiency.
  • Adding 50 new Airbus A321XLR aircraft known for their fuel-efficient narrow-body design to their fleet.
  • Partnering with Cool Effect to connect customers with a way to offset the carbon emissions associated with their flight.
Low environmental impact American Airlines aircraft stationed at jetways at an airport.

United Airlines

Climate change caused by air travel is among the top concerns of this airline. Therefore, this environmentally friendly airline works hard in being energy efficient and reduce fuel emissions. To achieve it, they do different things, including but not limited to:

  • Using sustainable products
  • Investing in sustainable fuel sources
  • Creating and maintaining partnerships to promote sustainability and protect the environment

In 2019, the company’s ‘flight for the planet’ was considered the most eco-friendly flight in history. The carbon-neutral flight used sustainable biofuel and eliminated all cabin waste, including food waste. Statistics from this flight included that 3.3% of fuel was saved compared to a typical flight, 40 tonnes of carbon dioxide was offset, which made up for the aircraft’s fuel consumption, and also waste was down by about a third.

United Airlines aircraft taking off from a runway.

Air Canada

Air Canada may not be the most environmentally friendly airline yet, but it was quick to start the journey towards net zero emissions. One of the most important steps came in 2019 when the airline started eliminating plastic drink stirrers to reduce the use of single-use plastics on all of its flights. The result was the elimination of 35 million plastic drink stirrers yearly.

Of course, like all sustainable airlines, Air Canada supports the development of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF). Obviously, they mainly support developers based in Canada.

Air Canada aircraft flying over a tree on a clear day.

Delta Airlines

Trying to become the most eco-friendly airline, Delta committed to putting $1 billion over the next ten years into its efforts to completely cut emissions from all of its flights. The main idea is to use the money to support carbon offset projects for air travel customers as well as projects to improve clean air technologies.

However, the airline’s environmental impact is being also mitigated by applying other measures that include:

  • Recycling cans, bottles, cups, newspapers, and other single-use products on flights, joining American Airlines as the only airlines that recycle onboard waste.
  • Partnering with Looptworks to upcycle more than 350,000 pounds of textiles from recycled employee uniforms.
  • Offering customers the option to help offset their own travel pollution by buying carbon offsets online.
A Delta Airlines taxiing on a runway next to trees and grass.

Cathay Pacific

Cathay Pacific has excelled in addressing environmental concerns since it set the goal of becoming the “world’s best airline.” While big moves like adding six new fuel-efficient Airbus A350s to its fleet, and using biofuel on all its flights to achieve a 28% fuel efficiency improvement thanks to efforts made since 1998, it is smaller measures that make this airline excel. Some of these measures include:

  • Offering carbon offset programs to their passengers.
  • Offering plant-based meals on their menus.
  • Going paperless and using apps in their cockpits, thus saving thousands of tons of carbon emissions from manufacturing.
Cathay Pacific aircraft in flight over a cloudy sky.

Qantas

The Australian airline holds the title for the best carbon offset record. It uses its Future Planet scheme to do so since 2007, and they have managed to offset three million tonnes of carbon emissions since then.

Qantas’ carbon offset projects currently help indigenous tribes, the prevention of wildfires, and the management of the Great Barrier Reef. It has also committed $50 million over the next 10 years to develop a sustainable aviation fuel in Australia.

Low environmental impact Qantas aircraft taking off on a cloudy day.

British Airways

British Airways is one of the most environmentally conscious airlines in the world, focusing on reducing carbon emissions per passenger, reducing noise per flight, and minimizing waste by increasing material reuse and recycling.

Since 2019 passengers traveling in the World Traveller Plus cabin receive new amenity kits made from recycled materials such as plastic bottles.

The idea of the airline is to build a plant on a site in Lincolnshire that will transform more than 500,00 tonnes of everyday household and commercial waste into fuel for its airplanes every year.

Low environmental impact British Airways aircraft landing on a runway next to green fields and mountains.

Final remarks

There you have it, these are 8 of the most eco-friendly airlines you can find. Of course, there are many more working to achieve net zero carbon emissions like European Air France and Chinese Xiamen Airlines.

Also relevant, low-cost carriers Wizz Air and Ryanair are the ones leading the pack when it comes to the lowest CO2 emissions per passenger.

Finally, we can say that the future of aviation looks promising and its impact on environmental issues. Whether it is using more renewable energy or completely new aircraft designs to reduce emissions or any other solution for that matter, we believe the industry is capable of fulfilling its commitment to limit its impact on the environment.

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Carlos Collantes
Carlos Collantes
A mechanical engineer and aviation enthusiast dedicated to share some knowledge by creating top-notch content, especially in engineering and aviation topics.

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