Common, Rigorous, Robust Standards Needed for Sustainability to Fly in the Airline Industry

If you think about air travel and sustainability, a couple of things might occur to you: First, that you are not involved or interested; second, that since airlines are so dependent on liquid fuel, reducing their carbon emissions is a lost cause. But, you probably are involved, and flying can become less disruptive of the planet’s systems.

What’s it to you? Well, in the US, in 2012, World Bank data showed annual per capita carbon emissions of about 17.6 metric tonnes. 2015 numbers will be similar. Using the VTT LIPASTO tool we can estimate that if a person travels 1000 km (600 miles or so) about 150 kilograms of CO2 would be released. Three return trips? Close to a tonne, for an increase to the average person’s share of emissions by about 6 percent. Three round trips, New York-LA, raise a person’s total per capita emissions by a whopping 15 percent. When I was still working as an airline captain, I spoke with one of my passengers on a flight from Toronto to Hong Kong: over the North Pole with a few zigs and zags and the distance was about 13,000 km. He did the round trip about twice per month. That’s pretty unusual, but how much would you say that travel affected the sustainability of your office, department, company? A little? Substantially? A lot?

Those carbon emissions will disappear one day. That is an amazing success story: we now have sustainable ways (plural) of making the kind of fuel that jet airplanes burn. Our initial, small capacity will increase over the coming decades. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents almost the entire industry, says that airlines need and want to reduce emissions dramatically, and in a sustainable way: no increase after 2020 and a 50 percent reduction by 2050. Those goals are for absolute totals, and not intensity-based. The Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) brings companies other than airlines into the mix and makes similar assertions. The Sustainable Aviation Fuels Users’ Group is a maybe even more focused and invested. SAFUG’s commitment seems unambiguous and includes their roster of leading companies.

Such corporations are also certainly considering other long-term benefits, such as security of fuel supply and stability of price. As usual, sustainability pays a financial dividend — if you take the time to think the whole thing through.

But if we want to reduce air travel carbon emissions in a sustainable way, using sustainable fuel, we have to think of the obvious: hundreds of airlines flying all over the world, buying fuel in hundreds of different places from many different suppliers. There simply must be evolution toward a common, rigorous, and robust standard of sustainability. Critics and watchers are aware of this exact challenge. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is surveying and reporting on air carrier commitment. Its conclusion is that a common, very high sustainability standard is vital to the industry’s efforts to convince the world that they are really trying. IATA commissioned its own report from Ecofys, a sustainable energy consultancy. Ecofys came out very heavily in recommendation of a high common standard and compared what was available. The Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials RSB seems to be the best. Michael Gill, IATA’s Director, Aviation Environment wrote the foreward to that report; reading him, we get a good idea of where this is headed.

It’s worth taking particular note of the RSB story. It is a signal achievement in coming to grips with certifying sustainability in a totally comprehensive way. I devote almost an entire chapter of my book to this organization, and it is not your usual ‘roundtable.’ Important here is that when airlines, airplane makers, engine manufacturers, and fuel suppliers did their homework on sustainable fuel, the RSB came up repeatedly. But the broader point for everyone is that no matter what your field of work, you should know what the RSB does and exactly how it does it. Its standard pokes into every bit of what we understand all of the dimensions of sustainability to include. It has already branched away from biomaterials and I think its systems could be adapted for anything. I did not find a single organization that does it better.

The commercial air travel industry is a vital service supplier to almost everyone in business. From the point of view of supply chain and a circular economy, our supplied air travel is all part of the flow. But airlines are facing a huge job in getting flight energy in a sustainable way. As a consequence, they have had to think hard about commitment, joint effort, and common standards. For the coming decades, this may be the case study in how to achieve — and prove — real sustainability.

Do three things:

  1. Make business travel carbon emissions part of your company’s sustainability accounting. Do the same for your personal carbon footprint.
  2. Ask your airline what is being achieved in reducing those emissions
  3. Watch what the industry does.

What is happening now is the beginning of a huge move forward in many ways: It will mean new and vibrant fuel enterprise all over the world. Proper certification will address social and environmental considerations and take things like the ‘food for fuel’ battle, associated with earlier renewable fuels, off the table. Land use and all of the environmental and social justice issues that go with it will be considered. It will be an example of how to make an industry financially healthier and more benign.

Elsewhere the industry has struggled. Market-based measures (carbon credits or some other) are critical to meeting the 2020 target of no further increase in emissions. But the necessary international government agreements have been frustratingly elusive. This makes the work being done on actually reducing emissions (as opposed to merely accounting for them, and buying and trading rights) absolutely critical and something that anyone in any industry should understand and appreciate.

Sustainability ‘contagion,’ up and down supply chains, is vital to us all. Stay tuned and stay supportive.


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