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IATA: New environment chief ​arrives at tense time

Michael Gill is hoping his 15 years of aviation law experience will stand him in good stead for the complex negotiations lying ahead as ICAO member states attempt to agree on a global market-based measure (MBM) to address emissions growth in the airline industry.

As IATA’s director aviation environment and newly appointed executive director of the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), Gill will represent the industry at what are expected to be tense and difficult discussions as countries around the world try to strike an as-yet elusive deal on managing international aviation emissions.

“We got a historic result at last year’s ICAO Assembly, where governments agreed to develop an MBM,” says Gill. “But while that came after five years of pushing from the industry, it really only represents the start of the in-depth negotiations and technical work.

“We have just over two years to go before the 2016 deadline for that MBM proposal to be developed, and the industry – working through ATAG and IATA – will be doing everything we can to produce a good result, acceptable to all stakeholders and governments.”

Gill is a qualified lawyer who has spent the last decade-and-a-half specialising in international aviation law. For the past six years, the UK national has been the senior legal counsel for IATA in Geneva.

“One of my last major projects in that role was the development of an airline position on dealing with unruly passengers and the revision of the Tokyo Convention that we worked with governments to achieve just a few weeks ago,” says Gill. The fact that this project called for close co-operation with ICAO and governments made it a good training ground for what lies ahead, Gill believes.

“In many ways, it closely resembles the steps that the whole industry took on climate change and the work that lies ahead of us in developing the global MBM,” he says. “I was also heavily involved in the environmental legal work, so I come at the role with an understanding of the issues.”

Gill assumes the mantle from Paul Steele, whom IATA last year promoted to the role of senior vice-president member and external relations. Steele joined IATA as director aviation environment from conservation group WWF International, where he was chief operating officer. It is perhaps telling of the expected legal wrangles associated with developing a global MBM that Steele’s successor has a background in law rather than conservation.

However, achieving global MBM consensus is by no means the only item on Gill’s agenda. The impact of aircraft noise on local communities around airports is another area “where we are starting to see contentious issues again”, he says.

Noise will be addressed during the IATA annual general meeting with a panel discussion scheduled for Tuesday 3 June, which Gill says will focus on achieving harmony between stakeholders on the issue: “We have an excellent panel of speakers representing airline, manufacturer, airport, and regulator interests.

“There will also be a dedicated environment booth at the AGM, where delegates can learn more about some of the operational initiatives that the industry is undertaking to improve its environmental performance.”

Gill took up his ATAG role during its Global Sustainable Aviation Summit, which took place in Geneva in late April. The summit went well, he says, and set “a good tone” for discussions going forward.

“Importantly, we were able to really start exploring some of the wider sustainability issues beyond simply climate change, which has, understandably, dominated the summit discussions for the last several years,” says Gill. “Often we get caught up in the day-to-day running of the system, and that is an important thing of course, but it is good for the ATAG mentality of looking more long-term to be shared and discussed more widely with the industry and our stakeholders.”

ATAG used this year’s summit to release its 2014 Aviation: Benefits Beyond Borders report, in which it focuses on the positive side of the aviation industry. “We support over 58 million jobs and $2.4 trillion in economic activity, and the report is a good opportunity to remind governments about the important role aviation plays in modern economies, not to mention modern lives,” says Gill.

In addition to the report, ATAG launched a new website, aviationbenefits.org, in which it lists the latest news on developments to make aviation more sustainable, alongside figures illustrating the industry’s contribution to the global economy.

While aviation’s impact on the environment may have slipped out of the headlines in recent months, Gill fully expects the issue to return to the public eye as the global economy continues to improve.

“When you look at the broader environmental debate, there certainly is less media coverage, with public anxiety having shifted to economic matters, given the current economic climate,” he says. “However, the issues still remain and once the economy is more robust, environmental concerns will return.”

To stress that the environment has not fallen off IATA’s agenda, director general Tony Tyler told delegates at the ATAG summit that sustainability will be “a critical key to unlocking our future” and urged stakeholders to remain focused and unified on the issue.

The director general encouraged the industry to “stay united and stay the course”, adding: “This gives us the credibility to earn our licence to grow with our stakeholders and our passengers. And it will give us the strength to find solutions to the inevitable twists and turns that are guaranteed to emerge along the way – particularly with respect to the development of a global market-based measure.

“We should acknowledge that there are different perspectives on this issue at industry level that are reflected at national and regional levels too. But we must remain focused on the ultimate goal – the overall good for our industry and the world. We need to remember that the alternative to a global scheme will be a proliferation of overlapping, expensive national and regional measures that will cost much more than just paying for our growth.”

In terms of the type of MBM that could be implemented, IATA favours the introduction of a mandatory carbon-offsetting scheme to be applied to emissions growth post-2020.

Gill says there has been “significant progress on some of the technical issues” associated with developing a global MBM, and he is optimistic: “At this stage, we think all parties are engaged in a constructive mindset, so that bodes well for the next 18 months to two years.”

Back in 2008, IATA set out its four-pillar strategy for tackling the airline industry’s impact on climate change, and set the ambitious target of becoming a zero-emissions industry in the future. Gill is standing by those targets and is confident that they can be achieved as long as governments play their part.

“There is certainly a commitment within the industry to move forward on some of these environmental targets. However, many of them will require governments in particular to also front up and work with us on solutions,” he says. Areas in which government help will be needed include air traffic management reform, agreement on a global MBM and the commercialisation of biofuels.

On the latter point, Gill says the technical work is progressing “very well and we will see the first dependable regular supply of alternative fuels start entering the system at the end of the year”. However, he adds that more needs to be done, particularly by governments. “We have a real opportunity here to decarbonise our energy supply and it is one that cannot be missed.”

“We were (and still are) the only sector to have committed to such far-reaching goals and we should be justly proud of that,” says Gill. “Importantly, we have also stuck to those targets and continue to use them as the benchmark of the work the industry does.

“The first target – to improve fleet fuel efficiency by 1.5% per annum – is being consistently met, and the work taking place at ICAO is leading to the mechanism that will make carbon-neutral growth a reality.”

He adds that the commercialisation of alternative aviation fuels and the research into “radical” new aircraft manufacturing technologies will enable the industry to match the 2050 target. “There is a lot to do, for sure, but I remain confident that if any industry can do it, aviation can.”

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