Aviation growth and climate change: “it’s the environment, stupid”

David Whitely by David Whitely | Feb 7, 2020

To keep his campaign on message in the run-up to the 1992 US presidential election, one of Bill Clinton’s strategists hung a slogan in the campaign headquarters that read: “It’s the economy, stupid”.

It was a time of economic upheaval in the Unites States, and this became a rallying cry for Clinton’s supporters to focus on a positive message of growth and recovery that would eventually carry him to victory.

Fast-forward to 2015 when the United Kingdom’s two largest airports, Heathrow and Gatwick, were vying for approval to build a new runway. Unsurprisingly, aviation’s impact on the environment was at the forefront of this campaign.

Gatwick delivered a new message: “It’s the economy and the environment, stupid” as concerns over the environmental impact of aviation were front and centre in a hard-fought campaign.

Indeed, Heathrow has since established itself as an industry-leader by putting sustainability at the very centre of its growth and expansion plans with its “Heathrow 2.0” strategy.

This strategy represents a step-change for Heathrow’s business and one that, the airport says, “captures the momentum of an industry-wide shift towards a sustainable future for aviation”.

While lessening the environmental impact of aviation has been a perennial priority, concerns over climate change have become even more prominent.

The benefits of aviation growth

Combatting climate change and its effects has rapidly become an even greater concern for the world and for the aviation industry.

Aviation continues to play a vital role in the economic and social well-being of communities and local economies. It provides millions of jobs, health and humanitarian aid, educational opportunities, helps to lift communities out of poverty, and improves overall quality of life, particularly in developing countries. 

But these benefits can only be delivered if the aviation industry comes together to ensure the sustainability of the industry into the future by reducing impacts on the environment.

Over the last 40 years, the aviation industry has invested billions in research and development which has resulted in measures and practices which have made significant progress in reducing its environmental impact.

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, however, has raised even more alarm bells about the intensity of climate change.

Climate change is bringing aviation together like never before

The aviation industry is determined to ensure that flying shouldn’t be a trade-off between the benefits connectivity brings and its impact on the climate.

To bring these issues to the surface, ACI EUROPE held its first Aviation Sustainability Summit in Brussels in January.

The summit brought together key stakeholders from the EU institutions & Member States, EUROCONTROL, airlines, AIRBUS, NGOs, community representatives and airports to debate the industry’s response to the challenges of climate change.

In setting the scene, ACI EUROPE Director General Olivier Jankovec outlined the scale of the challenge of decarbonizing aviation and achieving more sustainable airports.

This is daunting but there is optimism that, with the industry working with governments, scientists and environmental experts on research and development, a new era of aviation, with sustainable fuels, electrification, and other advancements, is set to transform flying.

Jankovec pointed out that even the pioneers of aviation could not see the technological advancements that were so close. In 1909, Orville Wright said, “No flying machine will ever fly from New York to Paris.  That seems to me to be impossible.  No known motor can run at the requisite speed for four days without stopping.” Aviators were only a few years shy of doing just that when Wright made this prediction.

The objective for the industry, regulators and governments in tackling climate change is to come together, to grasp these new technologies and opportunities to decarbonise air travel. UNFCCC Deputy Executive Secretary Ovais Sarmad said aviation will remain a powerhouse because it has no choice but to transform.

“No industry has a choice,” he said during his keynote address. “New technologies must be created and enhanced. If companies fail to adapt, they will fail to exist.”

University of Cambridge Senior Associate Dimitri Zenghelis said that there was a clear imperative to optimize change in the industry and in society as a whole as regards technology and practices.

While this may seem simplistic to some, Zenghelis pointed to the recent experience in the take-up of renewable energy options which, at every point, outstripped predictions for take-up.

If the same focus can be given to the development of sustainable aviation fuels and new technology, then change can be accelerated.

Aviation must become carbon neutral

EUROCONTROL Director General Eamonn Brennan said that the global effort must be aimed at making aviation carbon neutral not aimed at preventing people from travelling.

“We need to incentivise the use of sustainable aviation fuels – this would have an immediate effect as you don’t need to change the aircraft,” he said. “Of course, we need to continue to research and develop things like electrification, for instance, but these are long term goals.”

While technological advances such as electric or hybrid aircraft remain a long-term target, the industry leaders are focused on changes and improvements that can be made now.

Late last year, International Airlines Group (IAG) became the first airline group in the world to set a net-zero carbon emissions goal, supported by a package of new measures to reduce its carbon footprint, and a long term goal to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050.

Speaking at the summit, CEO Willie Walsh said IAG felt it needed to move faster and that it couldn’t wait for others to reach an agreement on such a target.

“An emergency like this requires leadership and we believe we should show this leadership,” he said. “It is important that we show that we are putting our money where our mouth is.

“We are reducing net emissions so we will be helping others in the supply chain to reduce their emissions too.”

Towards a single European sky

It was also unsurprising that the more efficient use of airspace was also a topic of debate.

European airspace is among the world’s busiest and it has often been said that the current system of air traffic management suffers from inefficiency and waste, leading to excessive fuel burn and, therefore, more emissions.

“It’s madness that we are flying the same routes we have been for decades,” Willie Walsh said. “We need to look at flightpaths and we need a single European sky.”

The European Commission’s Single European Sky initiative seeks to reform the European air traffic management system in terms of capacity, safety, efficiency and environmental impact.

Eamonn Brennan, Director General, EUROCONTROL agreed.

“We need the political will for a single European sky,” he said. “We need states to push for it.”

Aviation needs to lead the way but also show its work

There is no doubt that the aviation industry has placed even greater emphasis on sustainability and climate change but, as scrutiny on the industry increases and movements like Flygskam, led by Greta Thunberg (below), gain more exposure, it must also show that it is doing more.

September 27, 2019 – Montreal, Canada: Greta Thunberg on stage in front of a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people present for the climate strike march in Montreal on September 27th 2019. Credit: Eric Demers/Polaris

Swedavia CEO Jonas Abrahamsson said during the summit that Flygskam is based around a perception that the aviation industry has not done enough to address its impact on the environment.

“Whether or not this is true is irrelevant, the perception remains,” he said. “We need to address this, and we need to make sure things actually happen. Then this perception will change.”

The perception from some is that aviation is a disproportionately large contributor to climate change.

The fact is that aviation produces around 2% of all human-induced CO2.

It is also true that the industry has averted more than ten billion tonnes of CO2 since 1990 through a combination of new technology, operational efficiencies and improvements and continues to develop new ways to continue towards decarbonized aviation.

As the industry pursues the increased take-up of sustainable aviation fuels, develops new technology and new aircraft, and makes further improvements in operational efficiency to bring carbon emissions down even further, it must also ensure the travelling public sees this enormous effort.

By reducing aviation’s climate impact, the industry is helping travellers to fly sustainably.

A global challenge needs a global response

Last year, ACI EUROPE announced its Sustainability Strategy for Airports, which aims to tackle environmental, social and economic issues.  A cornerstone of this strategy is the NetZero 2050 undertaking which commits the European airport industry to this goal.  To date, over 200 European airports have undersigned the pledge. 

This is a ground-breaking initiative for Europe but addressing climate change is a global challenge which requires a global response.

As Willie Walsh said during the summit, “There needs to be a global response, one that looks at the industry’s carbon issues, not just Europe’s carbon issues.”

To provide global action on behalf of the world’s airports, ACI World has established a task force to work on a long-term carbon goal for airports around the world, including considerations of net zero carbon airports by 2050.

Every region faces different challenges, so the establishment of this task force recognizes that global action requires an approach that works at a local level.

But while this is clear indication that climate change is being taken seriously and has focused the industry, the enormity of the challenge is apparent.

When asked during the summit, is aviation doing enough right now as an industry, Eamonn Brennan had a short and succinct response: “No.”

It is clear, however, that the industry is focused, determined and ready to change that.

David Whitely

David Whitely

Senior Director, FTI Consulting
David Whitely is a ACI World Business Partner with more than 25 years’ experience in journalism, corporate, media, and public relations in the UK, Canada and Australia. He has held in roles with HSBC, and with the governments of the UK and Western Australia. In aviation, David has served in the senior leadership teams of London Gatwick Airport and ACI World. He is currently a Senior Director with FTI Consulting based in the Asia-Pacific region and supports clients on strategic communications matters including ESG, crisis and reputation management, and change communication.
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