As global leaders wrap up the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, the aviation industry is among those closely anticipating how the commitments will affect emissions reduction regulations that have scaled up over the past few years. According to Climate Watch, commercial aviation contributes to 2% of global carbon emissions. Although this is relatively small compared with industries such as energy (42%), road transport (12%) and even fashion (10%), aviation has received heavy scrutiny in part due to its association with the congestion and pollution caused by mass tourism.
In response to growing criticism, the UN agency overseeing commercial aviation developed the Carbon Offset and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) in 2016. Under the scheme, the industry was set two targets: to cap carbon emissions from 2019 and to halve CO2 emissions by 2050 compared with 2005 levels. Airlines registered in participating countries would have to meet CORSIA targets, starting with reporting to eventually offsetting their contributions to atmospheric carbon dioxide.
How can the industry meet these commitments, and do they go far enough?
Since its adoption, CORSIA has had its fair share of sceptics. The criticism includes that it sets no emissions cutting targets. The scheme is also voluntary by participation until 2027, when it becomes mandatory. At present, it excludes China and India. Furthermore, with offsetting baselines now set at the 2019 peak just before air travel demand collapsed in the wake of Covid-19, airlines can technically put off action until global demand recovers to pre-pandemic levels. And with CORSIA’s ambit covering only international aviation, it leaves silent the question of how countries will tackle emissions from domestic flights, which for some, constitute between 40% and 60% of total emissions.
The criticism notwithstanding, CORSIA has created momentum for the industry to coalesce around four main pathways to emissions reduction. The first centres on increasing the efficiency of resource utilisation. Low-cost carriers, particularly, have led the charge in this area through the use of young fleets and operating procedures such as real-time management of flight inventories from fuel to food and water. According to published data from 2017 to 2020, LCCs consistently delivered lower emissions per seat than legacy carriers operating similar networks. Based on the latest data, Hungary’s Wizz Air reported the lowest CO2 emissions per seat kilometre, followed by Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair and Southeast Asia’s AirAsia.
Second, more airlines are contemplating the use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) made from renewable feedstock, such as used cooking oil, to reduce carbon emissions by up to 80% during its full life cycle. In September, US carrier Jetblue announced it is on track to reach 8% SAF utilisation by 2023. In the months leading up to COP26, a raft of airlines pledged 10% SAF utilisation commitments by 2030, including Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines. These actions come ahead of a proposed European Union mandate requiring EU-based airlines to utilise SAF in their fuel blends from 2025 onwards.
Third, airlines have begun offsetting their emissions ahead of the CORSIA timeline. Carriers that are claiming carbon neutrality include easyJet (all international and domestic flights), Delta (all international) and British Airways (all domestic). These actions are spurring others to do the same or risk losing market share as more travellers begin to weigh their carbon footprint when making travel decisions.
Fourth, aircraft manufacturers have started investing in research and development to develop new-generation planes that run on hydrogen. Airbus, for instance, expects its first zero-emission commercial plane to be available from 2035.
Does this signal a chance that the industry can deliver on its carbon commitments?
While these developments are encouraging, the industry is still in the early stages of transition. More countries, especially developing ones, will need to undertake engaged policymaking so as not to focus on regulating emissions without addressing gaps in markets, infrastructure and expertise. With zero-emission aircraft not currently available and SAF available only in small quantities, the industry faces only two immediate options, and these are not without their own challenges.
One impactful way for airlines to increase fuel efficiency is by flying more direct paths. However, this requires improvements in air traffic management, which is under the purview of state authorities. Speaking at the Airbus Summit in September, easyJet CEO Johan Lundgren expressed frustration at the slow pace of improvements in European air traffic management, which, once realised, can cut emissions by 15%. Similar legacy issues affect airspace management in other regions. There would also have to be a rethink of the role of airports. Will airports be held to green building standards, just as airlines are increasingly held to emissions standards?
Increased efforts must be made to address gaps in the carbon market and shortages in technical expertise to navigate the carbon economy. At the UN aviation agency’s stocktaking event this year, several airlines expressed concern over the high expense of having to engage one of a handful of international consultancies accredited to verify their emissions.
In regions such as Southeast Asia, where carbon offsetting is in its nascent phase, there is a dearth of eligible carbon credits. Unlike wind or solar farms, there are no easy measures for the offset equivalency of preserving delicate ecosystems or biodiversity. Thus, even though it makes sense to preserve natural carbon storage environments such as mangrove ecosystems, most projects in the region are not certified for CORSIA acceptance. In the worst case, it could even lead to a net outflow of offsetting resources from these regions towards developed countries that have invested heavily in alternative energy.
Investment gaps would also have to be plugged. Green financing must be available to support the development of affordable green technologies. Airlines cannot utilise SAF if the fuel is unavailable at most airports. Further, with the industry having just taken a hammering, few can afford a fuel that costs five to seven times more than conventional jet fuel.
To a certainty, tough choices would have to be made to tackle aviation’s climate impact, but this should be balanced against the benefits of air travel. According to the Air Transport Action Group, aviation generated almost US$700 billion (RM3 trillion) of gross domestic product per year pre-Covid. This represents millions of livelihoods. Air travel is also not a luxury in places where road and rail infrastructure are not well developed. In archipelagic states such as Indonesia and the Philippines, flying makes the difference between a one-hour trip and a two-day journey by land and sea.
What the industry needs, above all, is for travellers to begin making low-carbon choices. Once travellers begin selecting carriers that bring them to their destinations with the lowest emissions, all airlines, and not just a handful, will begin to respond.
Yap Mun Ching is the executive director of AirAsia Foundation and head of sustainability at the AirAsia Group