Sustainable flying without the shame

Making the business of freedom sustainable

It’s no secret that aviation has come in for a good deal of scrutiny and criticism over its environmental impacts. The flight shaming phenomenon and proposals for a Green New Deal that would reduce and even replace air travel with other modes of transport have been in the news around the world, not just in Europe and the United States, where they respectively originated.

Less well known is that environmental sustainability has always been high on aviation’s agenda. Today’s new aircraft emit 50% less carbon monoxide and 90% less smoke and unburned hydrocarbons than those made 50 years ago, while carbon emissions from the average journey are actually half what they were in 1990. Moreover, since 2008, the industry, including airlines, airports, equipment manufacturers and air navigation services providers, has had a goal to address its 2% share of human-caused CO2 by capping net emissions from 2020 and cutting them in half by 2050, compared to 2005 levels.

In 2016, nations of the world working through the International Civil Aviation Organization, (ICAO), the specialized body of the United Nations devoted to civil aviation, agreed to the vision of carbon-neutral growth from 2020. The mechanism to achieve it is the Carbon Offset and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).

At the recently completed 40th ICAO Assembly, member nations reconfirmed their commitment to CORSIA. In addition, ICAO will now start looking at a long-term aspirational goal to cut emissions—so governments and industry will be aligned.

These are momentous developments for the environment, for everyone who flies and for the aviation industry. Demonstrating a commitment to sustainability is critical to earning aviation’s license to grow. And without growth, aviation cannot spread its many economic and social benefits. This is particularly important in developing nations, where access to air connectivity is crucial to 15 of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Simply put, flying is freedom; and that freedom continues to spread. This year, travellers can choose from of 22,375 unique city pairs connected by air. That’s more than double the number that were available in 1998. Concurrently, flying is becoming more affordable and accessible to more people. The average return fare in 2019 before surcharges and tax is forecast to be 61% lower than in 1998, after adjusting for inflation.

Young people in emerging economies have exposure to travel opportunities that their parents could only have dreamed of at the same age. Travellers can also fly with confidence because aviation is the safest form of long-distance travel the world has known.

Aviation makes globalization possible, and globalization leads to economic development. Since 1990, globalization has lifted 1 billion people from poverty. The more people who enjoy the freedom to fly, the greater the benefits to all the people of this world.

As with any human activity, there is an environmental cost, but flying is not the enemy, carbon is. In capping emissions, it is forecast that CORSIA will mitigate around 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2 and generate over $40 billion in climate finance between 2021 and 2035. And the industry is not sitting still.

Aviation has also taken the lead in identifying, testing and certifying sustainable alternative fuels, which we believe can reduce aviation’s carbon footprint by 80%. We have proved they work. Now we need governments to build supportive policies to invigorate the sustainable fuels industry. Down the road, new technologies, such as electric airplanes, will also play a role.

It is our duty to protect the planet from the disastrous impacts of climate change. Some say that the answer is to stop or heavily reduce flying. That would have grave consequences for people, jobs, and economies the world over. It would be a step backwards to an isolated society that is smaller, poorer and constrained. Flying has made the world a better and freer place and we are committed to sustainably making it better and even freer still.

By Alexandre de Juniac
Alexandre de Juniac is the Director General and CEO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA). IATA’s 290 member airlines represent 82% of global air traffic.

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