Creating 915 million tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2019- 100 tonnes more than the nation of Germany… aviation is facing a battle to implement change and reduce its impact on the environment.
How Aviation Contributes to Our Global Economy, As Well As Emissions…
The aviation industry is a critical part of not only global passenger travel, but also international trade. ATAG (Aviation Transport Action Group) estimate that whilst air freight only accounts for 0.5% of the volume of international trade, this is in fact worth over 35% of its total value in terms of the goods carried. Air transport is crucial; often used for high value, time-sensitive delivery of goods. In terms of the human impact, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, it is estimated that 4.5 billion passengers were carried by airlines globally in 2019 alone.
ATAG further estimate that “if aviation were a country, it would rank 17th in the world in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), generating $691.3 billion (£518.4 GBP) of GDP per year.”[i] Ultimately, the global dependence upon aviation usage has translated into a significant contribution by the industry with regards to global pollution. Air transport is still heavily reliant upon fossil fuels and the result is that annual emissions exceed those of large economies such as Germany. In 2019, air transport created 915 million tonnes of CO2 emissions; for comparison Germany emitted 805 million tonnes across the same period.
What Are Airlines Doing to Address Emissions?
We have already seen Carbon off-setting utilised by the aviation industry, as applied in October 2016 when the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) “adopted a resolution establishing a Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). CORSIA requires aircraft operators to purchase offsets, or ‘emissions units’, to account for the growth in CO2 emissions covered by the scheme.”[ii]
However, one of the other major changes is the recent adoption of more sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs). For example, British Airways, who are planning to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, have announced a new deal with the Phillips 66 Humber Refinery to domestically produce SAF for BA flights from early 2022. BA “will purchase enough sustainable fuel to reduce lifecycle CO2 emissions by almost 100,000 tonnes, the equivalent of powering 700 net zero CO2 emissions flights between London and New York on its fuel-efficient Boeing 787 aircraft.”[iii] This forms part of a wider strategy by IAG, the holding company of which British Airways is a part along with Iberia, Vueling, Level, and Aer Lingus. IAG “will invest some $400 million over the next 20 years to promote the development of sustainable aviation fuels. The British airline also has existing agreements with other technology and fuel companies with which it is working on the development of plants for the production of SAF.”[iv]
Over the past few months, major airlines have pledged to cut emissions. In the weeks leading up to COP26, several aviation giants made the promise to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, an ambitious target given the severe impact the pandemic has had on revenues and future bookings. Others are seeking to onboard newer aircraft that are designed to be more environmentally sympathetic. United Airlines for example have “become the first US airline to sign a deal with Boom Supersonic, who are developing net zero supersonic jets. Boom says its Overture airliners will be flying by 2029 on 100 per cent sustainable fuel. United has ordered 15 aircraft, with an option for 35 more.”[v] Alongside changes to the aircraft themselves, airlines and their suppliers are seeking other measures to improve their environmental credentials. These include reducing or omitting the usage of single use plastics, as well as utilising green vehicles on the tarmac at airports.
What Pressures Does Aviation Face?
The aviation industry is faced with an uphill task, certainly carbon off-setting, which has been utilised by airlines over the past few years, had previously gone some way towards alleviating criticism of aviation as a polluter. However, more recent debate around so-called ‘greenwashing’ (the action of a company or business to portray themselves or their products as being ‘green’ or ‘environmentally friendly’ when this is not necessarily the case) has seen some environmental groups and NGOs label carbon-offsetting as a tool for this. Subsequently their argument is that carbon offsetting is used to avoid addressing the real issues with pollution.
Further, the recent proposals and innovations by airlines will become increasingly important, as we see governments look to address concerns around aviation as a polluter, as nations strive themselves for Net Zero. The EU for example is considering placing a tax on aviation fuel and will require all but the smallest EU airports to provide greener jet fuel to airlines by 2025.[vi]
The result is that an industry greatly hampered by Covid-19, is now facing upheaval and uncertainty in the race to reduce emissions; with increasing pressure from governments, NGOs and consumers, alongside a need to invest and upgrade services in a switch to less polluting practices.
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