Airlines feeling the pressure from climate activists

Airlines feeling the pressure from climate activists
Photo Credit: Cubrazol/

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 global community."

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," he said. 

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 available. 

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 themselves.

"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.


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