Counterintuitively, the global pandemic has catalysed the aviation sector’s approach in a very positive way to climate action despite going through the worst period in aviation history, said Haldane Dodd, the incoming Executive Director of the cross-industry Air Transport Action Group at its 2021 Global Sustainable Aviation Forum. Momentum had gathered pace over the past 18 months with real climate policy developments and a major push had taken place on sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), he said, citing that since the start of Covid-19, over 6.3 billion litres of new SAF purchasing commitments had been made by airlines globally, around the same amount committed across the previous six years. However, Dodd acknowledged the decarbonisation transition will not be easy. It needed, he said, clear direction “from the top” and called for the “overdue” long-term climate goal to be adopted by States at next year’s ICAO Assembly. In an opening address, ICAO Council President Salvatore Sciacchitano said the post-Covid outcome should not be a reversion to business as usual and bold sustainability commitments to building back better and much stronger “must now be the order of the day.”
Sciacchitano stated aviation required a strategic, long-term approach to climate change and that States at the 2019 ICAO Assembly had requested the governing ICAO Council to continue to explore the feasibility of a long-term global aspirational goal for international aviation.
“We’ve accordingly broadened our umbrella to include all relevant stakeholders, made sure the best expertise is being applied to the long-term goal’s data and scenarios, and we’re pursuing a transparent and inclusive process of advance consultation with States,” he reported. “Important contributions to our long-term goal assessment process have been made by the 2020 and 2021 Stocktaking Seminars we’ve hosted on aviation in-sector CO2 emission reductions. Thousands of participants have joined us for these events, indicating how front of mind this issue is for so many today, and industry has been eager to make use of the seminars as the platforms for their announcements on some ambitious net zero commitments.”
He said the events had showcased many new aviation developments relating to advanced and novel aircraft technologies, operational improvements both in the air and on the ground, and opportunities for scaling up SAF.
“The potential of these innovations in reducing CO2 emissions is undeniable, and while the pace of them is also impressive, I am here today to call on all stakeholders to collectively do much more,” he told delegates to the virtual event. “Governments can help to promote and, when appropriate, subsidise private sector innovation, but the true responsibility and capacity to innovate in air transport will always rest with the manufacturers, operators and system managers who design and fly the aircraft and manage their safe course through our skies.”
He called for the recovery from the pandemic to show a “spirit of cooperation and common purpose” to leverage emission reductions and the eventual elimination of emissions. “I believe that innovation has already demonstrated the promise that our sector can continue to expand its services and deliver systemic and sustainable prosperity and mobility benefits to societies all over the world, even as we continue to decrease overall sectoral emissions,” he said.
A political session during the Forum focused on efforts to reach an agreement at ICAO on the long-term aspirational emissions reduction goal. Ross Adams, Australia’s Permanent Representative at ICAO, said a lot of technical and analysis work had taken place over the past two years within the Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP) and would continue up to the next Assembly later in 2022. CAEP is looking at credible pathways, he said, for achieving in-sector emission reductions, along with a range of scenarios based on technical feasibility and attainability.
“The aim is not to tell Member States what the goal should be but rather to provide all the information they need to make an informed decision about a long-term goal, how we could get there and what the options are when this comes before the Assembly,” he said. “The pleasing aspect has been the deliberative and inclusive approach ICAO has taken on this work and also the increasing engagement from both Member States and industry in the process. Certainly, challenges lie ahead but the momentum is building for collective action between States and industry.”
Angie Ahmed Abdallah Mostafa, the Representative of Egypt on the ICAO Council, said that although many discussions had taken place in the Council on the target, explanations were still needed on how it could be achieved and there were different points of view on the Council, where many States were focused on the recovery from the global pandemic. The long-term goal process would require technology transfer, capacity building and financing of new technology and infrastructure, she said.
“ICAO Member States need to clearly understand what is at stake and what are the impacts,” she said. “We need a fair goal that takes into account the principles of ‘Common but differentiated responsibilities’ (CBDR) and ‘Special circumstances and respective capabilities’ (SCRC). The goal should not be a ‘one size fits all’ but if there is a goal that can suit everyone, maybe we can move faster.”
The United States’ Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs, Annie Petsonk, said the US under the Biden administration had a strong commitment on aviation and climate change, and was looking forward to participating in the discussions leading up to the Assembly next year.
“With the economy-wide net zero by 2050 climate target set by President Biden this year, the US is moving into a position of leadership at ICAO, not only on climate but across the board,” she said.
“ICAO though faces an enormous challenge and its credibility is on the line,” she warned. “It is 25 years since ICAO was handed the task of addressing GHG emissions from international civil aviation in 1997 by the Conference of the Parties. We recognise the technology challenges but if ICAO is able to identify and agree on a clear long-term aspirational goal then that would make an enormous difference in pointing the direction and the goals for engineers, entrepreneurs and innovators all over the world to direct their energies in the aviation sector towards meeting that goal. It can also help demonstrate to countries that it can deliver jobs, new developments at home and benefit local communities.”
Tim Johnson, Director of the Aviation Environment Federation, which is a member of the ICSA group of NGOs represented at ICAO, added it would be only 28 years to 2050 by the time of the Assembly next year and just 25 by the following Assembly. “We can’t afford to miss this opportunity. We hear from industry about long-term planning, creating certainty and getting the right investment, and this will take all the intervening years between now and 2050. There is public expectation and ICAO really has to seize this moment and deliver an ambitious long-term goal.
“Not only do we want a zero-carbon industry, however, we also need an industry with a zero climate impact to take into account aviation’s non-CO2 effects as, after all, it’s a temperature-based goal we’re working towards.”
Introducing a session to showcase new technology innovations, aeronautical pioneer and Chairman of the Solar Impulse Foundation, Bertrand Piccard, said having a clean aviation sector by 2035 was a reasonable goal. “Those who say it is impossible will look as stupid as those who made fun of the Wright Brothers before their first flight in 1903.”
He said 20% of today’s aviation emissions could be cut through operational procedures such as flying direct routes, continuous descent approaches, optimised fuel consumption and electric taxiing. The remaining 80% should be compensated for by airlines with immediate effect, he said. “This may shock you,” he told delegates, “but I believe all CO2 emissions emitted by aviation must be reabsorbed somewhere else. The CORSIA offsetting scheme is not enough. Taking 2019 as a benchmark while the rest of the world is taking 1990 as theirs, is stimulating the ecological resistance against aviation.
“It is vital for the future of aviation to recover from the Covid-19 crisis but it is also crucial the cost of CO2 from every flight is charged on the passenger ticket,” he said. “This won’t kill aviation but it will show a lot is being done to solve the problem and we can be carbon neutral immediately if airlines decide to do so. I love aviation and it’s not only for the environment that we have to do it, it’s for the future of aviation itself.”