Aviation: banding together for a more sustainable future

A big polluter with great financial resources and a progressive approach to green operations, the aviation sector is uniquely positioned to play a big role in securing a more sustainable future. After years of successful efficiency improvements, a wide-ranging initiative bringing together players from across the sector maps out the next steps for the sector.


aviation environment

Long before the widely-publicised COP21 climate summit in December 2015, the aviation industry had been scoring significant victories on climate change issues. But in the context of the week-long Paris negotiations, the spotlight fell on an active commitment made by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the UN specialised agency for aviation, and the aviation industry represented by the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG).

The initiative between the two industry bodies was born in September 2013 and brings together 191 Member States, 1,860 airports, 240 international airlines, 80 air transport management bodies, industry unions and aerospace manufacturers, all working towards the same common goal of reducing the sector's environmental footprint and actively preventing its impact on climate change. An official agreement signed by state leaders at the end of the 38th ICAO Assembly marked a significant moment in advancing these common goals, which were first outlined by the sector in 2008.

"This is clearly a historic resolution," said former ATAG executive director Paul Steele at the time, "showing the leadership of both developed and developing country governments meeting at ICAO in driving to the first comprehensive agreement on climate change for any global sector."

Since then, hundreds of local, national and international partnerships, programmes, projects and initiatives have been set up across the world, representing the "tip of the iceberg of a massive energy efficiency movement in aviation", as ATAG's current executive director Michael Gill described it.

But as the industry itself recognises, more work needs to be done in order to achieve carbon-neutral growth within four years, as well as the ultimate long-term ambition to halve net CO2 emissions by 2050 compared to 2005 levels.

"A set of market-based measures for international aviation has been devised for the first time."

A set of market-based measures for international aviation has been devised for the first time in the context of this partnership. Ahead of their evaluation at the next ICAO Assembly in 2016, what have been the big efficiency achievements within the industry, and what are the next parameters for progress?

Making a difference: what the industry has achieved so far

As a transporter of people and goods, aviation is one of the leading contributors to the socio-economic development of all regions of the world, generating $2.2tn of global GDP annually. But despite being "one of the most technologically advanced and innovative sectors in the world" according to ATAG, it currently emits around 2% of human CO2 emissions every year, or 724 million tonnes as recorded in 2014.

In day to day terms, someone flying from London to New York and back generates roughly the same level of emissions as the average person in the EU does by heating their home for an entire year, according to the European Commission website.

Due to its international nature, the sector cannot be regulated by national state laws, which is why both the aviation and maritime sectors were left out of the formal agreements during the COP21 negotiations, a decision that drew some criticism at the time. However, the high level of bad emissions created by this growing sector has resulted in mounting pressure for it to act fast and demonstrate leadership.

Many players in the industry have done just that. In July 2014, the ICAO counted 74 Member States representing 82% of global international air traffic who have submitted national state action plans mapping out their intentions towards cutting emissions in aviation. Moreover, 91 states, or 93% of air traffic, received training and had undergone a host of capacity-building activities to help reduce their CO2 emissions.

The most successful 101 case studies to date, involving over 400 organisations spread across 65 countries worldwide, have been compiled by ATAG in their Aviation Climate Solutions report, published in September 2015.

At a glance, the report counts more than 100 airports worldwide using solar power as an energy source, over 2,000 commercial flights running on sustainable alternative fuels and a total reduction of around 56m tonnes of CO2 over the past 15 years due to 8,300 aircraft using wingtip devices.

Among the many and diverse programmes outlined in the report, highlights include 20 European airports achieving full carbon neutrality, the launch of twelve fuel-efficient aircraft types which are already in operation, and more than $15bn spent annually by manufacturers on further research and development of newer aircraft types expected to enter the market over the next ten years. Moreover, airlines have already signed forward-purchase agreements with alternative fuel suppliers for up to 340 million litres of fuel for the next ten years.

It was through these collaborations and technological innovations that the industry managed to beat its first goal set six years ago: by the end of 2015, the sector achieved 2.9% annual fuel efficiency improvements, a great leap from the initial 1.5% figure set ahead of the original 2020 deadline.

"Whilst the 101 case studies here provide only a snapshot of the many thousands of projects taking place across the industry, they do give a good flavour of the variety and scope of the industry's efforts," Gill writes in the report's introduction. "Some actions are big: such as bringing a new aircraft to service; and some are smaller, but significant in their own way. This is a reflection of the aviation industry as a whole."

Creating a roadmap for future sustainability

However, the battle is far from over. As many other industries, aviation has a moral responsibility to align its operations within the global 2°C scenario, which aims to cut energy-related CO2 emissions by more than half in 2050.

"ICAO, governments, civil society and the industry are working in partnership to deliver a robust worldwide measure that will enable the achievement of ICAO's aspirational goal to stabilize international aviation's net CO2 emissions," a joint action statement reads.
But as positive as the plans might sound, it may still not be enough. A 2015 study commissioned by the EU Parliament for the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety warns that these goals are not aspirational enough.

"Initiatives and actions taken by ICAO and IMO to address greenhouse gas emissions started late and have been insufficient from an environmental perspective to date: they do not take appropriate account of global decarbonisation requirements," the report states. "In the long term, these measures will mitigate growth of the sectoral CO2 emissions but not lead to absolute emission reductions."

"Initiatives and actions taken by ICAO and IMO to address greenhouse gas emissions started late and have been insufficient from an environmental perspective."

Nevertheless, a detailed action plan submitted in September 2014 ahead of UN's Climate Summit outlines the three main goals between now and 2050, as well as presenting the four central pillars of climate action necessary to make these goals a reality.

Firstly, the plan lists the ambition to settle on a 1.5% average annual fuel efficiency improvement before 2020. As the current 2.9% figure is expected to normalise and level out, Gill points out that airlines will need to invest around $1.3tn in new aircraft by 2020 in order to keep to the original target.

Secondly, the sector aims to stabilise net emissions from 2020 through carbon-neutral growth, followed by the most ambitious venture, reducing net aviation carbon emissions 50% by 2050, relative to 2005 levels, regardless of growth in passenger numbers and cargo.

The ATAG's agenda includes a host of complex measures falling within four main categories, namely technological innovation, operational improvements, infrastructure efficiencies and smart economic measures.

By the end of this year, the ICAO aims to advance a global CO2 standard on fuel efficiency for new aircraft to underpin the ongoing developments and new technologies continuously being made by the civil aerospace industry. The incentive is two-fold: advancing fuel efficiency would tackle what currently represents the number one cost for airlines, which stood at $210bn in 2014.

Possibly one of the biggest moves on the agenda is implementing the Global Air Navigation Plan 2013-2028, a strategic approach delivered in "block upgrades" within participating Member States that helps reduce emissions through the delivery of advanced air traffic management systems.

"The global plan has been developed as a set of 'block upgrades' that Member States can implement in line with national circumstances and the availability of technology," the document reads.

"Many of the blocks will allow better use of airspace capacity, providing room for air traffic to grow whilst reducing inefficiencies in the system, and emissions."

Furthermore, the last action pillar looks at designing a global market-based measure (MBM) for international aviation in the form of emissions trading, emission related levies such as charges and taxes and emissions offsetting. First explored in 2013, the MBM will be considered in depth at the 39th ICAO Assembly later this year, with scope to be implemented from 2020 onwards.

Making the case for this complex but crucial roadmap of actions, an open letter signed by a group of 28 aviation industry chief executive officers and association leaders ahead of COP21 urged governments to fully commit to the upcoming challenge of revolutionising air transportation.

"The support must take place through a range of actions: air traffic management investment and reform; continued support for research into new technology, operations and sustainable alternative fuels; improved intermodal transport planning; and the right policy framework to help accelerate the availability of sustainable alternative fuels for aviation," the letter reads.

"To delay will harm a vital global sector and harm our global climate."