While screwing a bolt to the outside of the space station, I’d see the sun rise and set three times over the Earth in about half an hour – I’d look down and think: ‘Oh, there goes China again.’”

So recalled British-born astronaut Piers Sellers at a recent Royal Geographical Society lecture. Sellers has spent 35 days in space on three NASA missions, and experiencing our planet from far beyond the familiar limits of land, sea and even skies has altered his perspective of the world.

“I have always had an interest in the Earth and its workings,” says Sellers, a specialist in meteorology and climate systems. “But having seen Earth from space, I have developed a deep fondness for it.”

The sentiments expressed by that small band of people who have been into space are resoundingly similar. “Before I flew I was already aware of how small and vulnerable our planet is, but only when I saw it from space, in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realise that humankind’s most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations,” said German cosmonaut Sigmund Jahn after his mission in the late 1970s.

While millions of us now take to the skies in aeroplanes, experts suggest that commercial aviation is only on the cusp of booming, and the negative environmental consequences of this are potentially disastrous unless steps are taken to reduce its impact now.

For those of us who no longer get excited about flying – whose job it is to traverse the Earth by air to get to meetings, who no longer think anything of looking out of a window on to a skyscape of puffy cloud – it’s all too easy to be more concerned about our time of arrival or the food being served than the environmental implications of our flight.

In a way, this is fair enough. We are paying for a service and aren’t there to feel guilty about our carbon footprint, even if we are boarding our 50th flight of the year. But at the same time, according to a recent www.businesstraveller.com poll, about a third of flyers would be encouraged to fly with an airline if it had good green credentials. So what are the carriers doing to make flying greener – and are they doing it quickly enough?

Most airlines are putting measures in place to achieve the environmental goals suggested by industry body IATA (the International Air Transport Association) in 2007. These call for the aviation industry to improve fuel efficiency by an average of 1.5 percent per year over the next decade, to have carbon-neutral growth from 2020, and a 50 percent reduction in CO2 levels by 2050 when compared with 2005 levels.

What role does IATA play in helping the carriers to achieve this? A spokesman says: “I would describe it as disseminating good practices, monitoring all the good projects being undertaken by airlines, airports and manufacturers, and making sure the different stakeholders in the industry learn from each other and have platforms to get in touch so that we cross-pollinate ideas and accelerate the process. I don’t think there is any global industry that has such a united position.”

While “green” as a hot topic in current affairs waxes and wanes, it is heartening that December’s United Nations climate change talks in Cancun proved to be a great deal more successful than the previous year’s conference in Copenhagen, with preliminary agreements forged on how to cut greenhouse gas emissions around the world, particularly in developing countries.

The IATA spokesman says: “We noticed most of the government representatives we spoke to [in Cancun] were actually aware of what the airlines were doing, so we had more opportunities to sit down with governments and NGOs to look at how we could get the best outcome. It was less about trying to put aviation in its place and more about how we find joint solutions, which was very refreshing.”

Investing in more fuel-efficient planes is high on the list of priorities for many airlines – the eagerly awaited B787 Dreamliner, for example, will consume 20 percent less fuel than other aircraft of a similar size. So far, almost 850 are on order, and it is hoped that the first delivery will be made this year.

Rob Fyfe, chief executive of Air New Zealand, says: “We have saved several million tonnes of CO2 over the past few years. We have done this by making sure we have the most efficient aircraft – we have one of the youngest fleets in the region – and by changing our operating procedures to save fuel by, for example, taxiing with one engine and working with air traffic control to make continuous descents when landing.”

In the US, Leah Raney, managing director of global environmental affairs at Continental, which recently merged with United Airlines, says: “As a new single company, every dollar increase in the cost of jet fuel means an increase in annual costs of almost US$100 million, so we are very motivated to be more fuel efficient. The biggest part of our carbon footprint is fuel consumption – 98 percent, in fact – so [saving money by cutting down on this] nicely translates into reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

It is a happy coincidence that saving money on fuel burn also reduces the negative impact of flying on the environment. At the same time, the price and unsustainable nature of oil has meant airlines have been forced to start looking for alternatives, which has led to a greater focus on the development of biofuels.

Following a successful test flight by Continental in January 2009 using a blend of kerosene and biofuel made from algae and jatropha seeds, the airline is now in the process of getting it approved for general commercial use.

Raney says: “We were really excited because it showed it worked just like regular jet fuel. It was safe – so not only would our engineers be comfortable with it but so would our customers – and the most surprising thing was that it was actually more efficient than traditional jet fuel.”

Other airlines that have conducted demonstration flights using similar types of biofuel include Qatar Airways, United, Virgin Atlantic, Air New Zealand, Japan Airlines, KLM and TAM. More recently, Lufthansa has announced a six-month trial from April to study the long-term effect it has on the engines – this will be carried out on an A321 on the Hamburg-Frankfurt route – while Finnair is hoping to introduce biofuel by the summer on some commercial flights.

Kati Ihamaki, vice-president of sustainable development for Finnair, says: “We haven’t decided yet whether it would be one aircraft that would always use it, or if it would be on a particular route.” So how long would it be until the whole fleet was run using biofuel? “It depends entirely on the availability of the sustainable biomass, and on the price of the biofuel, as it is almost double the price of normal jet fuel and that is unbearable for any of the airlines,” she says. “But I think in the coming years it will become cheaper.”

More and more Asian carriers are also looking into the possibility of switching to biofuels in the future. On February 6, Air China signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Boeing and PetroChina to run a biofuel test flight in the second half of this year. And following in the footsteps of competitor JAL, All Nippon Airways (ANA) and JX Nippon Oil Corporation announced in May last year that they have also begun plans to eventually run a biofuel demonstration flight. Cathay Pacific has been engaged in the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG) since 2009. Dr Mark Watson, head of environmental affairs at Cathay Pacific, said: “We’re not in this for PR – this is about enabling us to put our business onto a more sustainable footing.”

Following the deal British Airways made last February with US firm Solena Group to build a production plant in east London – this would create about 60 million litres of fuel a year from organic waste from 2014 – Qantas has also joined the race to go bio. Last month it unveiled a plan to construct a similar factory near Sydney with the same company, and Solena is also reportedly in talks with Aer Lingus, Easyjet and Ryanair to open one in Dublin.

While critics will point out that burning biofuels still creates emissions, defenders argue that because they are produced from plants they are not adding to existing CO2 levels. IATA says: “The idea with biofuels is that you create a closed short-term cycle where you absorb CO2 from the atmosphere when you grow your crops, and then release that same CO2 back into the atmosphere when you burn it, so it’s a zero-sum game.”

Experts estimate that biofuels could reduce aircraft emissions by 80 percent compared with fossil fuels. So with the EU emissions trading scheme (ETS) coming into force next year – this will require all carriers that fly in and out of the European Union to report their carbon emissions and then buy allowances if they exceed their allocated free carbon credits – it’s no wonder that this is a growing area for investment (for an in-depth report on the EU ETS, visit businesstraveller.com/tags/emissions).

How will the ETS affect the individual traveller? The IATA spokesman says: “As with any rise in operational costs for an airline, whether from taxes or increased fuel prices, they will try to pass those costs on [to the passenger]. But in many cases, the airline will have to absorb the extra costs because it doesn’t have the competitive luxury to increase its fares.”

He adds: “One of the biggest improvements in terms of emissions comes from investing in new planes, so if airlines can’t pass on the costs, it may affect fleet renewal, which would be detrimental to emission reduction.” Hopefully, many carriers will think like Finnair and recognise the long-term benefits of buying new planes. Ihamaki says: “In the end the new fleet will benefit us because it will be more fuel efficient.”

So are airlines acting quickly enough? There is no doubt some have taken the cause to heart. Air New Zealand’s Fyfe says: “I remember vividly a conversation I had with a UK journalist three or four years ago who told me she would love to visit New Zealand but that flying down there on a B747 would be like going to a Greenpeace rally in a Hummer. We did reflect on that comment and so decided to do everything we could to minimise our impact on the environment.”

Still, most agree with the view of Scandinavian Airlines’ senior vice-president and chief commercial officer, Robin Kamark, that “a lot still needs to be done”. Lufthansa’s head of environmental issues, Karlheinz Haag, says: “The airlines are [acting quickly enough] but we need the help and commitment of all governments,” while Continental’s Raney adds: “Carbon-neutral growth from 2020 is a realistic target as long as we have the co-operation and collaboration of governments and manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus. It is a team effort.”

Additional reporting by Alisha Haridasani