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09 Nov Changing the environmental impact of aviation: evolution over revolution

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Earlier this month, the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) member states ratified the Carbon Offset and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). This scheme takes effect in 2021, and even then, it is voluntary until 2027. Not exactly a swift ‘green’ revolution. Why so slow?

No quick green fix

As the first truly global agreement within a single industry, CORSIA is historic. But does it revolutionize global aviation and suddenly make flying ‘green’? Frankly, no. The agreement merely obliges the industry to offset additional carbon emissions from the growing numbers of international flights.

As IATA states, “By itself, CORSIA will not lead to a sustainable future for aviation.” This is because the agreement seeks to mitigate effects of expected growth. It does not address the source of pollution: airplanes.

Small, steady steps that can gain wide support

Non-revolutionary by nature

Changing the direct environmental impact of aviation will take an evolution, not a revolution. Between now and 2020, we expect to see small, steady steps that can gain wide support amongst the industry’s many and various stakeholders and still comply with myriad regulations and safety guidelines. Fast is not the way to affect real change in the global aviation industry.

The industry is evolving, but that process is sometimes invisible to outsiders. The Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) (pdf) programme to modernise air traffic management, for example, started in 1999 and will run through 2024. Twenty-five years from vision to implementation sounds slow. But for a program with massive impact on aviation, requiring vast amounts of research, validation and collaboration, that is fast.

The first years of SESAR were needed to get stakeholders invested in the development of a Master Plan with ambitious but pragmatic goals. Only after everyone involved was on the same page, could the various working programmes of the plan be developed. That development phase began eight years ago and the results are gradually beginning to appear.

In 2015, the deployment phase of the programme began with the implementation of an important improvement: Time-Based Separation (TBS). TBS allows a significant reduction in delays due to headwinds, and is now operational at London’s Heathrow airport. More of these types of improvements, including on aviation environmental impact, are expected to be implemented across Europe in the coming years.

Evolving solutions to aircraft CO2 emissions

Under CORSIA, airlines can offset excess airplane carbon emissions by buying rights from other sectors, or through investments such as forest protection programmes. But offsetting will not get the industry to IATA’s ambitious target of 50% lower CO2 emissions than 2005 levels by 2050.

The real green evolution will come from advances in technical and operational efficiency, and sustainable fuels. (We detailed measures to reduce emissions last year.) CORSIA is merely a complement to improvements to reduce the environmental impact of aviation already being pursued.

CORSIA will also cost the industry billions. Expect to see mandatory surcharges by distance on tickets, although the amount of growth expected should mean only small charges per passenger. Some airlines are already encouraging voluntary contributions to CO2-neutrality programmes.

The question is where the money is best spent. Support from policymakers to help find real solutions is also needed if the industry is to not just mitigate, but effectively reduce the environmental impact of aviation.

About To70. To70 is one of the world’s leading aviation consultancies, founded in the Netherlands with offices in Europe, Australia, Asia, and Latin America. To70 believes that society’s growing demand for transport and mobility can be met in a safe, efficient, environmentally friendly and economically viable manner. For more information, please refer to www.to70.com

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Wouter Vermeersch
Wouter Vermeersch
Wouter Vermeersch started in 2015 at To70 the Netherlands. He is an aviation consultant with experience in fast-time simulations, air traffic management and airport development, both in the Netherlands as elsewhere in the world.
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