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Pressure Mounts on Airlines over Climate Change

Environmental issues are at the top of the aviation industry’s agenda, alongside safety and security. Aviation activities have boomed in the past decades, with the rapid rise of low-cost carriers enabling increasing travel opportunities to more people. However, the industry faces a major challenge in terms of reducing emissions responsible for global warming.

How polluting is flying?

According to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), air transport represents 2% of global CO2 emissions, roughly equivalent to the overall emissions of Germany. Yet, aircraft also emit particles such as nitrogen oxides, which can trap heat at high altitude, meaning the industry is actually responsible for more than 2% of global warming. Over 4 billion people flew last year, with air traffic forecasted to double within the next 15 years, reducing emissions will be even more challenging for the industry.

The industry has committed to improving fuel-efficiency by 1.5% per year from 2009 to 2020 and stabilising its CO2 emissions in preparation for a 50% reduction by 2050 compared to 2005.

Growing pressure on airlines

ICAO has urged airline operators to achieve the global aspirational goals and to promote sustainable growth by pursuing a basket of measures including operational improvements, sustainable aviation fuels, and market-based measures (CORSIA). Called the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, the at first voluntary scheme will have the industry buy pollution credits for emissions above the baseline from other sectors that have reduced their production of greenhouse gases.

Moreover, climate activists have stepped up efforts to convince travellers to boycott air travel in recent months, spearheading the trains-over-planes movement. Indeed, the aviation industry has been under fire over its carbon emissions, which at 285 grams of CO2 emitted per kilometre travelled by a passenger far exceed all other modes of transport. Road transportation follows at 158 and rail travel is at 14.

What can be done to reduce emissions?

Aircraft manufacturers have been developing a new generation of less polluting equipment with updated engines, aerodynamic modifications and fittings that weigh less. Nevertheless, all these technological advances to cut emissions are tough to implement quickly due to the nature of the industry hemmed by high costs and the fact that aircraft typically take decades before they are replaced. And they can only solve around 30% of the problem.

Meanwhile, several airlines have begun testing biofuels. But their production costs remain high and their widespread adoption would increase competition for arable land.

In this context, offsetting the carbon emissions from the fuel used for every single flight might be an interim but an effective measure for airline operators while new technologies are being developed.

How do we do it?

We strongly believe that sustainability is an important aspect of an airline’s business strategy, given that carbon offsetting projects are usually costly and time-consuming, and require a clear roadmap. For these reasons, Brookfield Aviation has established a consulting division that can support airlines in building strategic targets and plans with regards to environment concerns, which will include a number of sustainability initiatives.

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