Airline Industry Aims for 'Zero Emissions'


Last week we heard how a senior Ryanair exec is worried about green concerns damaging his company's sales, sparking another vigorous debate about the impacts of flying. At the time, we pointed out how some airlines are doing more than others to combat climate change and look for cleaner solutions for aviation. We reminded our readers that trains, where services exist, tend to have significantly lower emissions compared to flying (one commenter disagreed, though we don't have a link to the numbers they presented). Now it seems climate concerns are spreading within the industry itself. The International Air Transport Association, the industry's leading body, put environmental issues, and specifically climate change, at the heart of the agenda of its annual meeting in Vancouver last weekend. Representing 250 airlines, or 94 percent of scheduled international air traffic, the IATA has a huge influence on the aviation sector, and it's great to see this organization at least recognizing climate change as a major problem, though disagreements remain, both within the industry and from outside pressure groups, as to the way forward in tackling this issue.

The IATA's spokesman, Anthony Concil, made it clear that pressure from legislators is a major force in promoting climate change to the top of his concerns: "It's at the top of several policymakers' agendas. The United Nations is going to discuss it in September within their civil aviation organization ICAO." The annual meeting resulted in an open challenge from the IATA, calling on the industry to move towards a zero emissions future — a laudable, but undoubtedly distant, goal. Giovanni Bisignani, IATA Director General and CEO, repeated the industry's assertions that it has already made great strides to improve efficiency, and that its current impact is small:

"The environmental track record of the industry is good: over the last four decades we have reduced noise by 75%, eliminated soot and improved fuel efficiency by 70%. And the billions being invested in new aircraft will make our fleet 25% more fuel efficient by 2020. This will limit the growth of our carbon footprint from today's 2% to 3% in 2050."

According to Plane Stupid, however, the anti-aviation activist group, there is dissent within the ranks of the IATA. Their blog quoted a representative of Air France-KLM as saying that "We know damn sure that within a reasonable time-frame, there is no way that we can diminish our carbon emissions." Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Malaysia Airlines apparently said that there was no realistic, technological way to achieve zero emissions. Boeing apparently also argued that the IATA's goals were not good enough, preferring more specific short-term goals.

Slightly more details of the IATA's plan can be found in a PDF here, though it is hardly a detailed blue print for emission-free flying. Preferred measures include an emphasis on technology, and on infrastructure and operations efficiency. They remain fiercely opposed to any increases in taxes or charges, arguing that they "take funds away from airlines to invest in newer cleaner equipment" and they could damage the socio-economic benefits of aviation. In other words, taxes could reduce the number of flights — something that the industry does not want to see, unsurprisingly. The IATA does say that it could support carefully designed carbon trading policies, though it prefers voluntary agreements to regulation, and it claims that such schemes should be restricted to carbon dioxide only, and that other emissions should be tackled by 'other means' (no mention is made of what these means might be). It remains to be seen whether the IATAs interest in climate change results in significant long-term efforts to reduce emissions, or becomes merely a means to deflect criticism. We suspect, however, that the aviation debate will continue for some time to come. :: IATA :: Plane Stupid ::