Aviation faces some of the greatest decarbonisation challenges of any industry due to its current dependency on fossil fuels.

The need to decarbonise will also become more pressing: its 2% contribution to global carbon emissions today could exceed 20% by 2050 without mitigation due to growth of the industry and other sectors’ carbon-reduction efforts, according to EU analysis.

In response, the industry has ambitiously committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Industry body IATA estimates this will involve mitigating around 21 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide.

This is a vast challenge that will require innovation and investment on a massive scale, from rapidly scaling-up sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) production to maturing and deploying emerging technologies like electric and hydrogen propulsion.

Oped plane on approach

Source: Chalermpon Poungpeth/Shutterstock

Progress will depend on co-operation between governments and industry

Given the scale of this challenge, there are increasing calls for the industry to approach sustainability in the same way it handles another of its great shared challenges: safety.

At the heart of this view is that sustainability, like safety, represents a hugely complex challenge that affects the entire industry and that no individual organisation can address in isolation. Progress will depend on intensive collaboration to carefully learn from what works – and what does not – and to share those lessons widely.

Aviation’s success in improving global safety is built on a sophisticated infrastructure of learning based on routine sharing of safety data, close collaboration between governments and industry, learning-oriented safety analysis and investigation, and cultures of openness and trust.

This approach has driven substantial and enduring safety improvements. Worldwide fatal accident rates for commercial jet aircraft have declined by almost 80% over the past 20 years, according to Boeing analysis.

Collaborative learning is already central to some of the most promising near-term efforts to decarbonise aviation, many of which bring together multiple partners to explore improvements in fleet, fuel and operational efficiency.


For instance, in 2021, Etihad collaborated with Boeing, GE Aerospace, SATAVIA and several air navigation service providers (ANSPs) to operate a flight that reduced carbon emissions by over 70% compared with the equivalent flight a year earlier, exploring innovations such as a 38% SAF blend, direct routing and continuous descent, and optimised flightpaths to reduce contrail formation.

Boeing’s 787-10 ecoDemonstrator Explorer spent June 2023 testing trajectory-based operations to explore flightpath efficiencies in collaboration with multiple ANSPs and regulators across the Asia-Pacific region.

And Virgin Atlantic will soon operate a 787-9 on the first transatlantic 100% SAF flight, demonstrating the viability of SAF as a drop-in replacement fuel in collaboration with Rolls-Royce, fuel suppliers, universities and the UK regulator.

These initiatives and many others point to the huge potential of collaborative learning. But, compared with safety, collaborating for sustainability will necessarily occur within a context fraught with huge political and economic pressures and intense public scrutiny.

Some of the most important lessons from aviation safety may therefore relate to the underlying infrastructure of learning that is needed to support rapid industry-wide progress towards sustainability.

This will require systems and agreements that support open data sharing and the rapid dissemination of lessons about what works. It will need cultures of learning and openness that enable honest, constructive and critical examination of problems and successes.

And it will need dedicated collaborative spaces, like regulatory sandboxes and innovation labs, where industry partners, competitors, regulators and other stakeholders can work together on shared decarbonisation challenges while being protected from competitive pressures or regulatory fears.

The aviation industry has a huge amount to learn on its journey to sustainability. Some of the most important lessons may be how to accelerate and optimise the process of learning itself.

Carl Macrae is professor of organisational behaviour and psychology at Nottingham University Business School. His research examines how organisations and regulators manage risk, improve resilience and enable cultures of learning and innovation in aviation and other critical industries.