Business aviation is an essential component of the modern global marketplace, but there is no denying the negative impact of fuel emissions and the growing carbon footprint on our planet. Therefore, it benefits both companies, consumers, and the larger population to have more sustainable and eco-friendly offerings.

The drive toward sustainability has become a key concern for many major industries in recent years, and the private aviation sector is no different. Companies have adopted a number of new initiatives, including carbon offsets, carbon trading, and the adoption of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). In this article, we provide an overview of this vast and innovative field.

Carbon Offsets and Carbon Trading

Carbon offsets work by allowing people and companies a practical and convenient way to address climate change and to counteract their carbon footprint. The idea is that by investing in community projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, you can offset the carbon usage that you cannot avoid. For example, those who frequently need to use air travel can offset their carbon footprint by investing in clean energy projects such as wind farms, landfill gas capture, and alternative fuel creation.

There are a growing number of examples of carbon offsetting in use within private aviation:

Magellan Jets has partnered with carbon offset company Terrapass so that guests have the option of offsetting their emissions when flying. Since 2004, Terrapass has helped to reduce greenhouse gases equivalent to billions of pounds of CO2 with its support of alternative power sources and landfill gas reclamation projects. Magellan has also produced a Green Travel Guide to educate clients about carbon emissions and what they can do to help reduce the problem.

VistaJet transports an estimated 70,000 passengers each year. The company introduced a carbon offset program in January 2020 and 80% of VistaJet members have chosen to compensate for their fuel emissions. They can do this by investing in certified carbon credits. So far, the result of the new initiative is that VistaJet has offset 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to the emissions from more than 21,600 cars being driven for one year or charging more than 12.7 billion smartphones. The company has committed to being carbon neutral by 2025.

Also, to mark Earth Day in April 2021, Jet Linx announced a new carbon offset partnership with 4AIR. The program allows Jet Linx aircraft owners and Jet Card members to purchase carbon offset credits that fund projects designed to counterbalance carbon emissions around the world.

NetJets Europe has been carbon neutral since 2012. They recently announced that between October 2020 and February 2021 they were able to offset 4,724 metric tons, bringing their total carbon emission offsets to more than 1 million metric tons.

Charter company Air Partner plc has established a carbon reduction program for their offices, encouraging employees to use public transport, working from home, and cycling to reduce everyday carbon emissions. In addition, the company’s carbon offset scheme seeks to “promote sustainable flying to balance our environmental responsibilities.” Through a partnership with ClimateCare, they offer customers the opportunity to “opt-in” to adding to the cost of their charter in order to offset a flight’s carbon emissions.

An alternative to carbon offsets is carbon trading. Also known as carbon emissions trading, this allows companies to buy or sell government credits that allow them to emit a certain quantity of CO2. Investopedia describes them in more detail:

Each nation is awarded a certain number of permits to emit carbon dioxide up to a certain level. If it does not use up all of its permits it can sell the unused permits to another nation that wants to emit more carbon dioxide than its permits allow. Every year, a slightly smaller number of new permits is awarded to each nation. The notion is to incentivize each nation to cut back on its carbon emissions in order to have leftover permits to sell.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) operates an Aviation Carbon Exchange, or ACE, which allows airlines and others in the aviation industry to trade CO2 emissions.

Sustainable Aviation Fuels

Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) are another way in which the private aviation industry is seeking to lessen its environmental impact.

Leading the way with SAF is SkyNRG. The company acknowledges that flying is essential for global economies, but that it has an impact on the carbon footprint. Since it may be several more decades before the industry has a commercially viable alternative to fossil jet fuel (such as hydrogen-powered or electronic jets), they have explored the possibility of using sustainable resources to create a fuel source. Waste materials and feedstocks are most commonly used, and SkyNRG is careful to make sure that any feedstocks used are sustainable within the local community and do not drain additional resources such as extra land or water in their production. Care is also taken to guarantee that the production of feedstock for biofuels does not take precedence over or displace food production and living space for local communities. One of SkyNRG’s largest resources currently is locally sourced waste oils, for example the waste collected from restaurants and industry. Considered a pioneer in the field, they have supplied more than 30 airlines with sustainable fuels.

One aviation company that they have supplied with SAFs is VistaJet. VistaJet reports that aviation fuel is their main source of carbon emissions. It accounts for 89% of their total emissions. The previously mentioned carbon offset program helps to a certain degree but using a less-carbon intensive fuel can reduce emissions by up to 85% when compared to conventional jet fuel. By working with SkyNRG, they are able to offer SAF to clients worldwide.

The “Farm to Fly 2.0” initiative was launched in 2013 by the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) and other aviation industry groups. The goal of the initiative is to develop a viable and sustainable supply chain in the US that can support an annual production of 1 billion gallons of biofuel for aviation use. Another initiative that includes the NBAA and more than 300 members is the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI). CAAFI’s aim is to:

"Promote the development of alternative jet fuel options that offer equivalent safety and favorable costs compared with petroleum-based jet fuel, while offering environmental improvement and energy supply security for aviation."

In February 2021, NetJets announced their investment in SAF company WasteFuel, making them the first private aviation company to buy a stake in the alternative fuel production industry. In doing so, NetJets agreed to buy a minimum of 100 million gallons of WasteFuel’s SAF over the course of the next 10 years. WasteFuel converts municipal waste into SAF and expects to open its first biorefinery, located in the Philippines, in 2025. When operating at full capacity, the biorefinery will be able to convert 1 million tons of waste into 30 million gallons of SAF each year. That fuel offers an 80% reduction in carbon emissions when compared to conventional jet fuel. Meanwhile, NetJets Europe announced that they would begin using SAF as of this year.

Future Developments

While carbon offsets and sustainable fuels are an important step in the right direction, many in the aviation industry agree that these are something of a stop-gap measure until electric propulsion and/or hydrogen fuel becomes the norm. This is likely to be several years away. However, many interesting developments are taking place in the field.

At the moment, as many as 300 companies around the world are working on concepts for short-range battery-powered aircraft. These are known as eVTOL, which stands for Electronic Vertical Take-Off and Landing. Many of the concepts will not make it to the actual production line, whether because of design, cost, or other factors. But some are already making headlines and attracting serious investors as The Economist (subscrition required to read full article) recently reported.

It is expected that the first eVTOLs, because of their short range, would serve as air taxis, having an advantage over both helicopters and motor vehicles. They would be able to offer a convenient and quiet service. Their take-off and landing capacities mean they would need just a small area to land, as opposed to helicopters, which require specific landing pads and make a lot of noise. And they can simply fly above heavy inner-city traffic at a speed up to five times faster than the average taxicab. Automotive giant Toyota has entered into an investment partnership with California-based Joby Aviation, who claims that its five-person eVTOL aircraft will be ready for commercial service by 2024. Joby has also signed a deal with Uber. According to initial estimates, the initial cost per passenger would be $4 per mile, but they expect that to quickly drop, and point to flight-sharing as a way to keep costs low.

joby aviation

Meanwhile, Joby competitor Archer has inked a deal to supply United Airlines with 200 of its five-person crafts, with flying taxi networks proposed in Los Angeles and Miami. Archer says it plans to begin aircraft production in 2023, and launch consumer flights in 2024. Elsewhere, companies in Europe, China, and the UK hope to begin offering services very soon. Expect to see flying taxis in the sky before the end of the decade. Horizon Aircraft, who developed the first eVTOL, the Cavorite X5, carried out a survey of private equity professionals and found that 71% of them predicted at least 160,000 commercial air taxis in service by 2050. Brandon Robinson, CEO and Co-Founder of Horizon Aircraft said: “There is strong support for the concept of air taxis and the eVTOL market in general worldwide, people are keen to use the aircraft, and very positive about the development of the sector.'

In addition to the development of the physical aircraft, there is also a lot of work going into figuring our the impact of all these new planes on the airspace. eVTOL is a whole new category of aircraft, which will hit the skies in potentially large numbers, so there's a lot to be worked out around Air Traffic Control etc.

As for hydrogen fuel .... in the summer of 2020, a six-seater Piper M-Class, refitted to run on hydrogen, made a successful maiden flight in the UK. Also last year, Airbus announced the ZeroE project, a new series of zero-emissions commercial aircraft, the first of which may be ready by 2035.

Zeroavia hydrogen powered Piper

Proponents of hydrogen fuel point to the fact that its only waste product is water. It can also produce three times more energy than conventional jet fuel for the same unit of mass. However, critics say that it has lower energy in terms of volume and that to be able to store it in viable quantities would require a complex and much larger fuel tank design. Should hydrogen fuel become standard, there would also be a need for massive infrastructure change at airports to allow for the fuel’s transportation and storage. Lastly, can it be produced in the quantities needed without, in turn, having a significant carbon footprint, especially since most industrial hydrogen is currently produced using methane, and releases CO2 as a waste product. Other production methods do exist but are costly and energy-consuming.

What You, the Consumer, Can Do.

As this article shows, there are a vast number of potential developments that could change the face of private air travel within the coming years. And new ventures or breakthroughs are announced almost every week. Still there are steps that you, as an aviation consumer, can take to help mitigate environmental damage and to support the future of sustainable aviation.

When flying privately, ask your provider how you can offset carbon emissions from the flight. Ask what programs they have in place, and if they don’t have one, encourage them to consider it. In a few years, we can expect to see short-distance electronic air taxis to enter service, particularly in larger cities such as New York and Los Angeles, where beating the gridlocked road traffic would be most welcome. Once these are available, it may be worth exploring how/whether they meet some of your shorter travel needs.

And finally, we may well have hydrogen-powered aircraft in a few decades or so. Keep reading the SherpaReport for news on changes in private aviation and what they might mean for the way you travel.