Aviation emissions – virtue signalling or real action?

Written by: Paul Campbell
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The major challenge for the aviation industry is cutting CO2 emissions. Given that the number of passengers is expected to double over the next two decades, we need to consider the difference between virtue signalling and real action. The industry consistently professes to be passionate about finding solutions to reduced emissions and while we have undoubtedly made some progress, are we dodging the real issues?

Aviation accounted for 3.6% of the total EU28 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and for 13.4% of the emissions from transport, making it the second most important source of transport GHG emissions after road traffic. According to EUROCONTROL's latest report, EU GHG emissions from aviation have more than doubled since 1990, when aviation accounted for 1.4% of total emissions.

ICAO, in its briefing for the United Nations conference on sustainable development, said that innovative thinking and cooperation have made it possible to overcome some of aviation's biggest challenges, such as generic development of ATC systems, ATM airspace efficiency redesign and engine technologies making significant fuel burn and noise reductions. ICAO believes that in the transition to a green economy, the driving forces from an air transport perspective include environmentally motivated pressure from consumers and the increase in unilateral environmental regulations, rules and policy measures. However, as my colleague commented in a blog about ICAO's CORSIA scheme, the watering down of the sustainability criteria threatens to devalue industry attempts to tackle the problem and render yet another badly thought out scheme useless.

So, the obvious sustainability question is, what are we doing about it? I recently attended the 2019 ACI Annual assembly in Cyprus, where the great and the good of the aviation world descended to discuss the topics of the day. This year's focus was "Transform or die - Airports & the Sustainability Challenge". 'Routes online' shared highlights from panel discussions in two articles worth checking out, one covering the Airline Leaders panel on sustainability and another featuring Airport and ANS leaders discussing the 'bad guy image' of the industry.

In the Airline Leaders' panel, genuine concerns were expressed about the negative impact that additional costs would have on the industry's ability to invest in innovative solutions, and even on many European airlines' very survival. IAG's Willy Walsh described IAG's intention to use more biofuels across the fleet, targeting 2022 for implementation. In the longer term IAG are pinning their hopes on electric aircraft that solve the problem of today's heavy batteries.

In the airport and ANS panel, the focus was on communication. Dag Falk-Petersen, CEO of the Avinor Group spoke of the need to communicate the good things about aviation, but also to be honest and transparent – a view that was shared by other panellists. Robert Sinclair, CEO of London City Airport warned about talking too much about growth and not enough about what we're doing for the planet and for communities.

Some panellists spoke of the need to lock airlines, aircraft manufacturers, airports and ANS leaders in a dark room and tell them to sort it out … extreme maybe. But there was some support for the need to address the problem as an industry community, rather than as individual businesses.

So, what are some of the realistic medium-term options for measurable change? Developing sustainable biofuels? Electric technology? Or taking more responsibility for each flight we take? The worry is that taxation is seen as nothing more than a high yield revenue stream for decision-making authorities that wish to hide behind the real problem! Let's discuss.

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