Engine and fuel technology are making incremental improvements but with IATA predicting a doubling in passenger numbers by 2037, nibbling at the edges isn’t going to make enough of a difference.
The paradox is that passenger numbers won’t increase at that pace unless the industry makes some dramatic changes – we’ve all heard of flygskam – so the future impact might not be as great. But then nor will revenue: swings and roundabouts.
The industry is trying. ICAO’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation is a start, though its emphasis on forestation as an offset and palm oil-based biofuels means it isn’t perfect.
Some airlines are taking their offsetting very seriously.
JetBlue is aiming to offset all its domestic flights by the middle of this year. Refreshingly, its offsetting programme includes investment in solar and wind farms, methane capture from landfill and projects that protect forests from destruction.
While easyJet is doing something similar, offsetting all its flights. It has made it clear offsetting is an interim measure, with the long-term ambition of developing hybrid and electric aircraft.
It has also recently appointed a sustainability director to boost the company’s environmental credibility.
Others are looking at ways to reduce their use of single-use plastic, for example, which is also more complicated than it sounds. But is cheap and, more importantly, light so it takes less fuel to carry around, making flights less polluting. There are few easy answers.
And flying is always going to produce pollutants, whether it’s from internal combustion engines, battery manufacture, or the complex process of building an aircraft.
There is no getting away from it and we all need to be clear that air travel will always have an environmental cost.
What is also clear is that the industry has to become more sustainable though we don’t yet know what actions will be sufficient to make that happen. We do know that it’s necessary for the industry to follow the lead set by JetBlue and easyJet by putting sustainability at the heart of their businesses.
This is where the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals come in. The aviation industry has some work to do on three goals in particular.
SDG 7 deals with affordable and clean energy, SDG 9 is about industry, innovation and infrastructure, and SDG 13 covers climate action.
On the positive side, flying can support some of the other goal. Decent work and economic growth (SDG 8) and partnerships for the goals (SDG 17) are two examples.
The point is that SDGs provide a framework which businesses can use to inculcate sustainability into every aspect of what they do. It has to start from the very top of the business and be part of what everyone throughout the company does all the time.
It isn’t just about developments in engines and fuel. It’s also about everyday working practices: proper recycling, environmentally-friendly cleaning products, no more disposable coffee cups and so on.
The list is almost endless. Getting these things right needs the right mindset.
Perhaps we need to move away from SMART objectives to MASTER objectives: measurable, achievable, specific, time orientated, environmental and relevant?
About the author
Charlie Pryor is communications director at Leidar.