Aviation’s newest buzzword in the post-pandemic era is “sustainability”.
In Latin America, as in other regions, industry leaders are acutely aware they must move past platitudes and take swift action if it they are to do their share for preserving the planet – and promoting their countries’ stunning natural beauty.
But while the continent’s leaders know they have to act, they’re struggling to agree on how.
“The solution is not black or white, it’s a combination that we as an industry have to solve together,” Arturo Barreira, Latin America chief of European airframer Airbus, says at ALTA’s Airline Leaders Forum in Bogota, which wraps up on 26 October.
Manufacturers, governments, air navigation service providers, the fuel industry, researchers, investors and passengers are just a handful of parties that must find common ground and speak in unison if aviation is to fulfill ambitious carbon reduction goals, says Sebastian Mikosz, IATA’s senior vice-president for environment and sustainability.
IATA, which represents more than 290 airlines worldwide, on 4 October committed to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, as aligned with the Paris Climate Accords.
The strategy to get there must be multi-pronged and collaborative, with every piece of the value chain participating.
Mikosz says sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) will be the primary vector to achieving net zero emissions, accounting for 65% of the shift. But new technologies, and operational and infrastructure improvements, will contribute. The final piece of the pie is carbon offsets and carbon capture.
SAF alone will need to ramp up from 100 million litres produced annually today to at least 449 billion litres in 2050.
Neste vice-president of sales for North America Chris Cooper says such a monumental increase is possible.
“Neste can’t do it alone, but we want to thank the industry for putting a target out there, and now we can work together to achieve that,” he adds.
Just as big a challenge is how to pay for it all – and the exact cost of this widespread industry transformation is unknown.
“It will be a heavy financial commitment” for all industry actors to get to this goal, Mikosz adds.
Boeing vice-president for Latin America, Caribbean and global policy Landon Loomis says the airframer is squarely focused on SAF development. “We believe the SAF solution is where our effort will be focused,” he says, adding that Boeing is also pursuing hydrogen technology and other alternative propulsion systems. Airbus has said it is working on a hydrogen-powered airliner that would come to market in the 2030s.
“It’s our job to stay on top of the technological curve,” he adds.
Expanded use of new fuels like SAF may not require airports build new infrastructure. But hydrogen likely would. Widespread use of hydrogen could require massive modernisations that airports cannot afford on their own, says Rafael Echevarne, director-general of the Latin America and Caribbean region of Airports Council International (ACI-LAC).
“We are still at the very early stage, and that is our big question mark,” he says. “What do you need? How much will it cost? We are looking at all these things.”
“And if the if the plane is available in the 2030s, do airports need to prepare now?”
Fabio Rabbiani, director of ICAO’s South American office, adds that to get governments and regulatory authorities on board, the aviation and aerospace industries must clearly communicate the role they play in helping development the continent.
“We must show that aviation can benefit all other economic sectors, and build this vision of how we want to engage,” he says.
“One thing we learned through the Covid crisis is that there were some cracks in communication. This topic is no different. We need to show why aviation can be a test bed for other economic sectors,” Rabbiani adds.
Being the most-visible entities in the industry’s greenhouse-gas chain, airlines usually take the most heat from climate activists.
Henrik Hololei, director-general of the European Commission’s department for mobility and transport, says the entire aviation ecosystem must take joint responsibility – and not allow the airline sector to be the whipping-child, They must “get their act together”, Hololei says at ALTA.
“When we talk about SAF, new technologies, more-streamlined airspace – these are all aspects where airlines are the takers, and they are the ones who are held accountable for emissions, because they are the ones who emit,” he says.
“We need every element in the industry to help the aviation sector to become more sustainable,” he adds. “We are building back better, this sector needs to move forward, stop the lip-service and start delivering.”