With climate change activists becoming increasingly
influential, especially in Europe, the issue of emissions took center stage at
major aviation industry events in Seoul, South Korea, and Paris last month.
Still, even as airlines prepare for the onset of a
U.N.-required carbon offset scheme, questions remain about whether the industry
is acting boldly enough.
At IATA's annual general meeting in Seoul, the primary
message offered by attendees was that carriers need to do a better job of
communicating the steps they are taking on climate.
"Aviation is doing its job," IATA director general
Alexandre de Juniac said at the meeting's concluding press conference.
To underscore its commitment, the trade group passed a
resolution in Seoul reaffirming its long-standing support of the Carbon Offset
and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA.
Adopted by the aviation arm of the U.N. in 2016, the scheme
will require airlines to purchase carbon-offset credits starting in 2021 if
emissions rise above 2020 levels. Over the longer term, airlines have committed
to reducing international aviation emissions to 50% of 2005 levels by 2050.
"Along with reducing emissions, we must collectively
engage and tell our story more effectively," de Juniac said in his opening
speech. "That means articulating a much clearer path toward our 2050 goal."
At the Paris Air Show two weeks later, the environment was
also a major theme. The show saw the unveiling of the nine-seat electric
aircraft designed by Israeli startup Eviation and the purchase by aircraft
engine maker Rolls-Royce of Siemens' eAircraft division.
Seven leading aerospace manufacturers, including Boeing,
Airbus, Rolls-Royce and GE Aviation, also used Paris as a forum to jointly
pledge their commitment to developing electric aircraft, commercializing
sustainable aviation fuel and continuing the arc of efficiency improvement in
existing aircraft and engine designs manifested by planes such as the Boeing
787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A320Neo line.
In the joint statement, the chief technology officers of the
seven companies wrote that they are "committed to driving the
sustainability of aviation. We believe in this industry and its role in making
our world a brighter and safer place. We also strongly believe we have an
approach to make aviation sustainable and play an even bigger role in our
In an interview aired online by Aviation Week, Richard
Aboulafia, an aircraft industry analyst with the Fairfax, Va.,-based Teal
Group, called the environment "the big issue of the show."
A key driver of the commercial aviation industry's
heightened emphasis on addressing its carbon footprint is the growing political
strength of environmental movements. During late May's European Parliament
elections, Greens won 21% of the vote in Germany, compared with 10% in the
previous elections five years ago. The French Green party secured 13% of the
vote, enough to double its representation in the European Parliament.
With the traditional center-right and center-left European
parties now making up a minority of the European Parliament, some analysts
believe that the Greens are positioned to be kingmakers.
Airlines and aerospace manufacturers are also acutely aware
of a movement championed by Swedish teenage environmental activist Greta
Thunberg to cajole people into traveling by train instead of plane.
The movement, known as flight shaming (flygskam in Swedish),
appears to be having an impact. A recent Swedish Railways study found that 37%
of people chose to travel by train rather than air, up 20% from just 18 months
earlier. Meanwhile, passenger numbers were up 8% year over year at Swedish
Railways, while domestic passenger counts at Swedish airports fell 5%.
De Juniac acknowledged the potential power of the flygskam
movement in his opening speech in Seoul.
"Unchallenged, this sentiment will grow and spread,"
The very next week, members of parliament in France proposed
a ban on domestic city-pairs for which train service of less than five hours is
In an interview on the sidelines of the IATA general
meeting, Jane Thompson, business development advisor for the consultancy ICF,
agreed with IATA's assertion that the airline industry has been proactive in
pushing for technologies that will reduce its carbon footprint. But she said
industry outreach has not been cohesive.
"I think a lot of people think the industry is doing
nothing," she said.
But with aviation currently responsible for 2.5% of global
emissions, some think airlines must do more. Notably, last week, the U.K.
became the largest economy in the world to adopt a target of net-zero emissions
by 2050, a goal next to which the aviation industry's pledge of a 50% reduction
versus 2005 emissions pales in comparison.
Also on the sidelines of the IATA general meeting, Peter
Harbison, CEO of the Australia-based CAPA Centre for Aviation, said airlines
haven't communicated the green message well because they don't truly believe it
"They are cutting emissions because they've got to cut
emissions and it saves costs," he said.
Finnair CEO Topi Manner said his airline and the industry
overall will need to do more to reduce their carbon footprint. Better aircraft
engines, improved aerodynamics, a scale-up of biofuels and new engine
technologies are part of the answer, he said. But so are less obvious items,
such as electrifying ramp operations at airports and optimizing flight planning
with the aid of a more robust air traffic control infrastructure.