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Never ending journey


ACI World’s senior director for sustainability, environmental protection and legal affairs, Juliana Scavuzzi, explains why sustainability and environmental protection must remain a priority despite today’s challenges.

The aviation sector is currently facing two major challenges: to navigate and survive the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 in the short-term; and, to keep its long-term commitments regarding climate change.

There is no doubt that the pressure from governments and society on the sector to decarbonise remains, and will only intensify, when higher traffic levels resume.

To avoid being locked-in to alternatives which could delay decarbonisation, and potentially make it less attractive for investment, we, the entire aviation industry, need to keep sustainability and environmental issues high on our list of priorities.

Climate change, sustainability and investment

A recent survey of investors and financing stakeholders – carried out by ACI and international consultancy ICF – showed that, prior to COVID-19, 70% of those surveyed already required sustainability related criteria to inform their decisions; and, that 50% believed that COVID-19 had escalated climate change as a risk to investment in general.

Failure to address such risk in a timely manner, and to account for the costs and benefits to decarbonise, could compromise aviation recovery.

Resilience in the post-COVID era should be pursued holistically through a comprehensive systemic risk analysis of operations, infrastructure, people, supply chains, sustainable business models and cost to decarbonise.

In fact, COVID has proven that our survival depends not only on the resilience of our infrastructure and operations, but also of our passengers, staff, supply chains, other aviation and non-aviation stakeholders, the local and global economy, climate, health systems, among others. In short, airports are central to the global system.

It is not an easy task to address short, mid and long-term risks at a time when airports and other aviation stakeholders are struggling to keep the business alive and operating, despite the lack of customers, cash flow, and adequate financial support from governments.

Regardless, the aviation industry has reacted quickly to implement health and safety measures in co-operation with governments to give passengers, staff and authorities the confidence that it is safe to fly, with the precautionary measures in place.

Towards a consistent approach to sustainability

We are still, unfortunately, far from the consistent approach among different countries to make this international sector viable to fully return and bring the benefits to society and the global economy that we so much need during a recession.

Governments must help the industry to survive, so we can focus on the necessary green recovery, increasing resilience and addressing climate change, which will require time, co-ordinated action and investment.

Sustainable recovery plans with a clear path to decarbonisation should be prioritised as they would be the only way to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, which could be much worse over the longer-term than the current pandemic.

In fact, climate change has already had an impact on the planet, from fires in the US, Brazil and Australia to the increased risk of spreading zoonotic diseases which could lead to future pandemics.

Almost 70% of the airport operators who responded to the ACI survey on Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Change in 2019 reported that they have already been affected by adverse weather patterns and conditions.

The current impact is not only related to physical infrastructure. Governments and investors are increasing their pressure on organisations to report their climate-related risks.

The Canadian government, for instance, has recently required organisations to report their climate-related risks as a criteria for receive financing support to mitigate COVID-19 economic impacts while New Zealand announced that climate risk reporting would be mandatory for banks, asset managers and insurers.

A green recovery

It is often overlooked that prioritising a green recovery will bring opportunities to the sector and those investing in it.

For example, a recently published report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) evaluates a scenario for 2050 which aims at significantly scaling up renewables in line with the IPCC’s 1.5oC objective. This so-called Transforming Energy Scenario (TES) – which is in line with the 1.5oC objective – would “effectively pay for itself, with every dollar spent bringing returns between three and eight dollars”.

Furthermore it would increase jobs in renewables to 42 million globally, four times more than today, with an extra generation of seven million indirect jobs.

The TES scenario would also result in a payback of between $50 trillion and $142 trillion in reduced environmental and health externalities. Developing business cases which identify payback periods can help obtaining funds to invest in decarbonisation projects.

Quick wins for airports might be in improving energy efficiency, which also could reduce operational costs. Airport operators depend on the availability of renewable energy to decarbonise, since their main source of emissions are related to the consumption of energy for cooling and heating of buildings.

Regarding aviation emissions (from aircraft), scaling up Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) is the necessary next step. The good news is that it can be done, although it will undoubtedly be challenging. Airports have a crucial and central role to play as they can be facilitators of the commercial deployment of SAF. Nine airports already support the provision of SAF onsite on a regular basis.

Setting a net zero goal

There is no single solution, however, which could completely meet the challenge of transitioning aviation to net zero carbon emissions in the long-term.

This will require several solutions, including the development of new technologies, carbon capture, and potentially new sources of energy to power ground infrastructure and equipment, and even aircraft.

New technologies, such as electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft have recently emerged as potential alternatives to decarbonise the sector and some stakeholders have already committed to them.

These technologies require investment in research and development of new aircraft and engines which should necessarily include solutions to avoid unnecessary and costly changes to existing airport infrastructure, if they are to prosper and be replicated at the global level.

Airports have a major role to play in enabling (or not) these solutions. This infrastructure challenge must be addressed, with wide consultation, at early stages of such projects.

There is potential too for the transition of ground equipment and vehicles to alternative renewable sources to pave the way for airports in the future to be able to provide, for example, hydrogen for aircraft. Being the interface between different modes of transportation and services, airports may attract new types of investment and partners.

Aviation stakeholders need to identify opportunities and risks of potential decarbonisation pathways, positioning themselves strategically to be able to contribute, address, and benefit from them.

Early movers who include climate change at the centre of their strategies and recovery plans – and which necessarily include their partners – will be able to identify these opportunities and risks first. Sectors and stakeholders leading the change will also be at the forefront of receiving support to implement them.

Now is the time to come together on sustainability

It has never been more important to align economic policies and strategies with environmental agendas.

The social element of sustainability should be at the core of this discussion: defining how this can be achieved while promoting sustainable and fair employment, contributing to societal values and quality of life, and encouraging people’s minds, efforts, and passion in developing long-term sustainable solutions.

This can only be done jointly, encouraging support for initiatives that have a greater impact – on more than one stakeholder and or sector.

The importance of collaboration cannot be underestimated because climate change is a challenge we cannot face in isolation. We will need all sectors, actors and governments to come together as each has an essential role to play.

Governments should strongly incentivise these necessary exchanges both at the domestic and international levels. Different regions and sectors will face specific challenges, drivers and opportunities. The airport community needs to identify them and support all regions to achieve similar results through their own possible pathways.

Addressing climate change is a global challenge. Co-ordinated action is essential to avoid duplicating initiatives, especially at a time when resources are scarce, and to ensure that short-term remedies do not become locked in where longer-term solutions are needed.

Addressing the major challenge to decarbonise aviation and build resilience to the unavoidable impacts of climate change will demand we learn to better collaborate and grasp opportunities to develop the enabling business models.

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