The coming months are likely to be pivotal for the global airline industry’s sustainability challenge.

IATA has already promised that this October’s AGM meeting in Boston will consider more ambitious sustainability targets. Then, a month later, the UN will convene in Glasgow for its latest climate change conference, COP26.

The mission of the latter is to “bring parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change”.

Getting ahead of – and attempting to lead – the agenda at COP26 is important for an international industry that has always been susceptible to government regulation and overreach.

”Clearly in 2015 we had the Paris agreement that set a more ambitious target for climate change,” said IATA director general Willie Walsh in July. “We recognise we do need to update our targets. Our intention is to bring a proposal to our AGM.”

IATA director general

Source: IATA

Walsh has made sustainability a priority at this year’s IATA AGM

The problem for the airline industry is that even while it continues to be battered by the Covid-19 crisis, the pressure for it to address its environmental impact keeps getting stronger.

“The one thing that I can confidently predict is that there will be an end to the Covid crisis, even though my crystal ball cannot say exactly when that’s going to happen,” said Etihad Aviation Group chief executive Tony Douglas during a CAPA Live event in September. “But the sustainability agenda for commercial aviation is here forever and, in many ways, is a far bigger intellectual challenge for all of us.”

The sense that the world’s climate is in crisis is growing among the general public and governments in many regions, as several related catastrophes in recent months push the issue up the agenda.

Europe was arguably the first region to see this filtering through to pressure on airlines, with discussions regarding curbs on short-haul flights, for example, firmly entering mainstream politics.

And for most governments around the world, aviation could be a lever to pull in the coming years as they work out how to meet economy-wide emissions-reductions targets with an increasing sense of urgency.

“If we say we don’t want any more domestic air traffic… We have to follow this path consistently,” said Germany’s federal research minister Anja Karliczek in August. “It must not take 30 years… This is a decision we must lay down in the next coalition agreement.”

As this plays out, the next generation of air travellers are being born into a world where acting to reduce human-induced climate change – and experiencing the impacts of it – will be all they have known.

For the airline chiefs who are fond of lamenting the fact that the industry is unfairly stigmatised for contributing ‘only’ 2-3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the debate seems to have moved on.

Indeed, in a report last year, Boston Consulting Group noted that while commercial aviation accounted for “about 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2019”, projections are it could reach as much as “20% by 2050 without major intervention”.

Aviation’s problem, as ever, is that while many of the other major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions have significant solutions either already at hand or close by – such as cleaner sources of energy production – there is no such luck for the airline industry.

The science, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, which was released in August, is indisputable.

“Overall, cirrus and contrail cirrus warming, as well as NOx-induced ozone increase, induce strong, but short-lived warming contributions to the [global surface air temperature] response 10 years after a one-year pulse of present-day aviation emissions”, the IPCC report states. “CO2 both gives a warming effect in the near term and dominates the long-term warming impact.”

Existing frameworks for addressing this – notably the European aviation industry’s Destination 2050 report – are ambitious in scale, because they have to be. 

Perhaps advantageously, they outline a long list of factors that could contribute towards the industry meeting its sustainability goals, from offsetting through to improved air-traffic management, sustainable fuels, and technological and industrial breakthroughs, whether aviation-specific or otherwise, such as carbon-capture plants. That creates complexity in the industry’s journey, but also means there is no single point of failure.

“There is no obvious single subject that provides a solution,” says Douglas. “It’s going to be the combination of many different parts, some of which are small.”

As that journey towards a solution ramps up, there is a sense that the post-Covid airline era will be defined by sustainability scrutiny on a level as yet unseen.

Stakeholders are already suggesting that nothing is likely to have a bigger impact on where the airline industry is in 30 years’ time than its ability to address its environmental footprint.

And goodwill might already be in short supply. 

“Fudgy offset nonsense, pretty blue planes and vague sustainable fuel goals are not cutting it in the court of public opinion,” said one industry commentator in response to an airline’s recent announcement of a new sustainability programme.