Flying towards a Sustainable Future
Executive Director, Air Transport Action Group
It wasn’t too long ago that air travel was a luxury reserved for a privileged few. How things have changed. This year, almost 4 billion of us travelled by plane—a number we predict will reach 7.2 billion by 2035.
And it’s not just passenger numbers that are up. So too is the contribution the industry makes to global growth. In 2014, the aviation sector contributed $2.7 trillion to the world’s economy—that’s 3.5% of global GDP.
But this growth comes with responsibility: the environmental burden. We must find a way to balance all the positive benefits of growth with the need to reduce the environmental cost.
So what’s being done? A lot, actually. In 2009, industry leaders committed to three global CO2 reduction goals in the short, medium and long term. The first one—an average annual 1.5% increase in fuel efficiency—is being surpassed. Achieving the second—carbon-neutral growth—came one step closer this year, thanks to the ground-breaking Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation agreed this year by the world’s governments, with much support from the industry.
The third—and perhaps most ambitious—goal is to halve net CO2 emissions by 2050, compared to 2005 levels. Progress on that, too, is already well underway. Thanks to new aircraft models and operational measures such as weight saving, a flight today will produce roughly half the emissions it would have done in 1990.
But there’s still a lot of work to be done. And getting to where we want to be will require a helping hand from governments all over the world.
First, we must work together to commercialize the use of sustainable alternative fuels. The technology to produce these fuels—which can be up to 80% less carbon-intensive than traditional fossil-based jet fuel—already exists. The challenge is making it more affordable.
To get the alternative jet fuel sector get off the ground, governments must put in place the right policy framework. The industry has already made considerable progress, with sustainable alternative jet fuel being made available to all airlines flying out of Oslo Airport and United Airlines operating flights out of Los Angeles Airport using this fuel. On top of that, several airlines have made significant forward-purchase agreements to help kick-start the availability of this new energy source. By the end of the year, over 5,500 commercial flights will have taken off on sustainable alternative jet fuel. This is only the beginning. Real progress will require government engagement.
Governments should also focus on modernizing airspace management infrastructure. Currently, much of the world’s airspace is being run using decades-old technology, creating too much fuel waste through needless delays and inefficient routing. It’s a safe system, but there is significant scope for efficiency gains. Again, we already have the technology to do this, and projects such as the Single European Sky and the US NextGen are working towards this goal. To make a real difference, these projects need to be fully implemented and then replicated in other regions of the world. The efficiency gains would not only be good for the climate, they’d also reduce delays.
These are ambitious goals but they are attainable. If there’s any sector that has proven it can innovate to achieve what was once thought impossible, it’s the aviation industry.