Expert views

With flying comes great responsibility

9 April 2020
Michael Gill, Air Transport Action Group (ATAG)

The economic and social benefits of aviation are clear, but these come with a climate cost that the sector is stepping up to address

Aviation provides the world’s only global rapid transportation network. That makes it essential for global business. Air transport helps countries contribute to the global economy by increasing access to international markets and allowing the globalization of production. Without it, world trade would struggle.

As a significant employer with 65.5 million jobs supported by air transport worldwide and a global economic impact of $2.7 billion (3.6% of the global economy) – similar to the gross domestic product of Switzerland or Argentina – the aviation sector plays a vital role in enabling economic growth, particularly in developing countries.

An industry that relies heavily on aviation is tourism. Globally, 58% of international tourists travel by air. Without the connectivity provided by flight, developing countries in regions remote from their source tourism markets would not be able to enjoy their present levels of economic growth. By providing air links for tourism, international air transport supports 36.7 million jobs and $897 billion of global gross domestic product in tourism.

An environmental responsibility

The economic and social benefits of aviation are clear, with the growth of the sector being essential for all countries, both developed and developing. However, these benefits also come with an environmental cost.

Aviation accounts for roughly 2% of manmade CO2 emissions. For aviation to grow sustainably, the industry must balance the advantages of growth in air travel with the responsibility to pursue climate action. It is a responsibility that the global aviation sector takes very seriously.

Thanks to new technology and innovations – with $15 billion spent annually on efficiency research – the efficiency of aircraft has improved continuously. A flight taken today produces half the CO2 that the same flight would have in the 1990s.

At the same time, the industry is growing at a tremendous rate to meet the needs of citizens around the world who wish to travel – with some of the fastest growth in emerging economies in Asia-Pacific. That growth is often more rapid than efficiency improvements.

But to tackle this challenge, aviation industry leaders agreed a global, sector-wide climate action framework in 2008 – a world first. As of 2021, the industry will stabilize net CO2 emissions thanks to the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA): a global scheme under which airlines offset any growth in CO2 emissions above 2020 levels.

Next to these stabilization measures, the aviation industry will pursue other emission reduction measures such as developing new technology, and in the long term halve net CO2 emissions by 2050, compared to what they were in 2005.

Many airlines have shown leadership in advancing the production and deployment of sustainable aviation fuels, which could reduce CO2 emissions by around 80% compared to fossil fuels. They do this by signing multi-million dollar forward purchasing agreements, investing in start-up support and promoting sustainable aviation fuels through test flights, research, and investigation of local opportunities. Five airports now also have a regular supply of these sustainable fuels – in Bergen, Los Angeles, Oslo, San Francisco and Stockholm.

However, bringing sustainable aviation fuels to global markets remains challenging. It requires substantial investment. Positive policy options are now more critical than ever to support sustainable aviation. The industry has called on governments to assist potential suppliers of sustainable fuels in developing the necessary feedstock and refining systems – at least until the fledgeling industry has achieved the required critical mass and prices drop thanks to economies of scale.

Governments can also support the aviation industry by introducing environment and fuel quality legislation to promote developing markets for sustainable aviation fuels. Policy options include:

  • Enacting commercial risk-reduction policies
  • Ensuring that aviation has access to the same alternative fuel policies as other transport modes
  • Prioritizing aviation as a user of liquid-alternative fuels, alongside other hard-to-abate sectors (such as shipping and cement production)
  • Feeding research and technology into production processes and feedstocks
  • Providing access to more cost-effective debt, debt guarantees and capital grants for production facility construction
  • Supporting technical fuels approval processes at the ASTM (formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials), an international standardization organization
  • Diverting economic support from fossil fuels towards renewable and sustainable aviation fuels
  • Ensuring that any government support is contingent on adherence to global sustainability standards

United industry efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and government support combined will contribute to more sustainable tourism and more sustainable travel options for
us all.