Aviation’s climate action

Michael Gill, Air Transport Action Group

The global aviation industry connects the world like no other mode of transport and has been one of the main driving forces of globalisation. Over 3.3 billion passengers a year, a third of world trade by value and half of all international tourists travel by air. Aviation supports around 60 million jobs and 3.5 per cent of global GDP, but also produces around 2 per cent of the world’s human-induced CO2 emissions.

The aviation industry recognises its contribution to climate change and is determined to lessen its impact on the environment. In 2008, aviation was the first transport sector to set global goals and to proactively manage its climate change impact. These goals include capping net CO2 emissions from 2020 through a global market-based measure (MBM), being developed at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and a longer-term goal to reduce net CO2 emissions from aviation to half of 2005 levels, by 2050. The third, short-term, goal of an annual average 1.5 per cent improvement in fuel efficiency between 2009 and 2020 is already being surpassed.

The industry is united in taking on the climate challenge and much work is already underway in every sector of the industry, all over the world. The industry’s strategy is based on four pillars of: developing new technology; improving operational efficiency, creating better infrastructure and supporting work on developing a global MBM for aviation at ICAO.

To demonstrate the scale of climate mitigation work already going on in the industry, ATAG produced a publication called the Aviation Climate Solutions. This publication showcases 101 examples of individual and collaborative climate actions being taken by members of all sectors of the industry. It highlights everything from sustainable alternative fuel production to work on lightweight materials and navigational efficiencies. The purpose of Aviation Climate Solutions was not only to cite larger-scale technological advancements, like new aircraft or next-generation engines, but also the smaller-scale actions which, when added together, have significant climate benefits. The solutions therein demonstrate the impressive work on first three of the four pillars of the industry’s strategy underway right now.

The fourth pillar, a global market-based measure, which is expected to be finalised at the ICAO Assembly in a year’s time, is something that the industry cannot deliver itself. Despite the strong ongoing encouragement from the industry, ultimately, the MBM is a political agreement that governments will need to deliver.

A comprehensive and fit-for-purpose MBM is the cornerstone of the industry’s ambition to achieve carbon-neutral growth from 2020. This is why industry leaders from all sectors joined together to pen an open letter to the world’s governments, calling for them to agree on an MBM in 2016.

Progress, so far, has been encouraging. Many of the technical issues surrounding an MBM have been thrashed out, leaving a political agreement the final piece of the puzzle. While various options regarding the structure of the MBM exist, the industry’s preferred option is a global offsetting scheme. This would provide the highest environmental integrity and be the most cost effective for governments, as well as the industry. Importantly, it will also be deliverable by 2020.

However, implementing an MBM is not the only way in which governments can help aviation achieve its climate goals. In addition to this, the open letter calls for government support on a range of other actions: air traffic management investment and reform; continued support for research into new technology, operations and sustainable alternative fuels; improved intermodal transport planning; the right policy framework to help accelerate the availability of sustainable alternative fuels for airlines.

If this happens, then aviation can be confident in its ability to continue to provide the undoubted benefits of air travel in a sustainable way far into the future.


Michael Gill is Executive Director of the Air Transport Action Group