Europe’s airline industry has been warned that in the absence of concrete and speedy technological progress towards a reduction in CO2 emissions, people might choose to fly less as the impacts of climate change become more apparent.

Speaking during a debate on European aviation’s Destination 2050 report today, the executive director of the European Climate Foundation, Pete Harrison, said that the framework proposed in the report might be too slow to deliver genuine progress on zero-emissions technologies.

A danger exists, therefore, that demand reduction becomes “the real business as usual” for the airline sector, Harrison says.

Environmental impact of airline emissions

Source: Shutterstock

Slow action on environemental issues may keep airline passengers away

At the same event, however, EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren expressed his belief that the Destination 2050 report outlines an achievable framework in a reasonable timeframe, enabling commercial aviation to deliver its economic and social benefits while having a smaller impact on the environment.

In Lundgren’s view, the question of “whether we should fly less” is irrelevant in that context, even though he acknowledges that EasyJet customers recently cited improvements in sustainability as their number-one post-pandemic concern when it comes to air travel.

But for Harrison, while the Destination 2050 report shows aviation is talking “more realistically” about what needs to be done in terms of sustainability, he believes “it doesn’t go far enough”.

A generation of people might soon simply choose to fly less, he suggests, unless more ambitious goals are adopted in areas such as sustainable aviation fuels.

“The impacts of climate change have only just started,” Harrison explains. “I find it impossible to believe that a decade from now, citizens will be sitting back and just accepting the status quo.”

Furthermore, Harrison casts doubt on the potential for carbon-offsetting schemes such as ICAO’s CORSIA – a small but significant part of the Destination 2050 roadmap – to make a genuine difference in terms of the industry’s environmental impact.

In contrast, Lundgren is supportive of carbon-offsetting initiatives “as a bridge” for the industry to make an immediate impact on its environmental footprint, before the introduction of new technologies.

Lundgren also highlights progress on the Single European Sky as a way to have an immediate, positive impact on the industry’s emissions levels.

And on new technologies and sustainable fuels – which drive the vast majority of the emissions reduction in the Destination 2050 report – Lundgren and other industry representatives used the event to call on the European Commission and national governments to financially support their introduction – particularly with the aviation sector’s current parlous state in mind.

“The [airline] sector is fighting literally for its survival,” Lundgren states. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel… but we have lost the manoeuvrability and the options available to invest into things that don’t generate a return in the short term.

“We need to work together, we need to come together on that,” he says.

This would help to “de-risk” the investments that are needed, Lundgren adds.

The Destination 2050 report, released earlier this month by five European aviation trade associations, outlines a number proposals for the industry to meet a net-zero CO2 target. At today’s event, European transport commissioner Adina Valean expressed broad support for the report, saying many of the initiatives and targets align with the European Commission’s wider sustainability strategy.