In this episode of our ‘Sustainability in the Air’ podcast, Haldane Dodd, Executive Director at Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), speaks with SimpliFlying CEO Shashank Nigam about how the non-profit is assisting the aviation industry in its net-zero by 2050 journey.
Since 1990, Geneva-based ATAG has brought the industry together to address the most pressing issues of the time. Their membership currently comprises over 40 organisations, including airframe and engine manufacturers, airlines, airports, and sustainable fuel companies. They offer platforms for collaboration, provide valuable data, and develop educational resources, promoting the industry’s sustainability efforts.
Here are the key highlights of the conversation:
What does ATAG do? (2:57)
How to reconcile the multiple approaches to sustainability (7:23)
CORSIA and its sceptics (12:39)
How to get to net-zero by 2050 (16:25)
Making SAF commercially viable (19:22)
The role of electric aircraft and hydrogen in decarbonising aviation (26:37)
Dealing with the sceptics (30:03)
How to avoid greenwashing claims (35:16)
Reasons to be optimistic about the future (46:49)
Keep reading for a quick overview of the episode.
Why a united front matters
Dodd explains that while the aviation industry deals with several day-to-day challenges, the role of ATAG is to envision long-term challenges, looking decades into the future. This strategic, forward-looking stance allows them to address emerging issues proactively.
Waypoint 2050: Dodd highlights the sector’s adaptability and responsiveness by mentioning how it shifted its focus from infrastructural issues in the 1990s to climate change in recent years. One way ATAG is nudging the industry forward is through its comprehensive Waypoint 2050 report that explores how the sector may be able to meet net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050.
The parallels between climate change and safety: Dodd believes that the approach to sustainability will follow the industry’s previous approach to collectively solving safety issues. After all, flying has become significantly safer over the industry’s history, with in-flight fatality rates dropping 95% in the past two decades. This was achieved through collective action that reduced U.S. commercial aviation fatalities by 83% from 1998 to 2008. Dodd sees parallels in sustainability as well: since the industry’s 2009 initiation into climate action, CO2 emissions per seat kilometre improved 21.5% by 2020.
Enabling near-term solutions: While alternative technologies, such as electric and hydrogen-powered planes, are emerging, the existing aircraft fleet, including its successors in the short to medium term, will rely on liquid fuels. Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is an immediate solution that integrates with the current infrastructure. However, airline demand for SAF is outpacing supply. To increase SAF production, government incentives, like the US’s push for 11 billion litres of SAF by 2030, are essential. Dodd asserts that the financial sector can drive SAF investments by minimising investment risks.
5 essential waypoints for a sustainable future
1. Scenarios that balance growth and sustainability
Even as airlines have improved fuel efficiency and reduced the carbon footprint per passenger, the overall footprint of aviation has been growing due to a surge in demand, especially in the post-pandemic world. Haldane acknowledges this paradox. He states that the industry’s achievement in reducing fuel use per passenger kilometre by half in the past 30 years shows that technology and efficiency gains are a significant part of the solution, but the growth of the sector poses ongoing challenges.
Waypoint 2050 provides a roadmap for “balancing growth in connectivity with a comprehensive global air transport response to the climate emergency”. The document details 3 possible scenarios the aviation industry could follow to reach net zero by 2050, based on the development of new technology:
Scenario 1 represents a future where technological developments such as blended-wing and hybrid aircraft are prioritised alongside SAF;
Scenario 2 relies on aggressive SAF production;
While Scenario 3 counts on ambitious technological developments such as 100-seater electric aircraft.
2. CORSIA as a “gap filler”
In 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) adopted the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) to address CO2 emissions from international aviation. CORSIA is a global offsetting scheme, whereby airlines and other aircraft operators will offset any growth in CO2 emissions above a predefined and adjusted 2019 level. This, the ATAG believes, will stabilise aviation’s net CO2 emissions while other emissions reduction measures such as SAF and newer technology are being pursued.
Dodd highlights CORSIA’s status as the world’s leading global market-based measure across any sector. He draws comparisons with the Paris Agreement, outlining its strategy of individual country commitments which are later assessed for collective progression. He contends it is a meaningful step forward, particularly when considering its detailed offset selection process.
Critics have, of course, argued that CORSIA’s offsetting is less effective than direct reductions, has variable national enforcement, and its impact is unclear. However, Dodd views CORSIA as a crucial temporary solution, acting as a bridge between current limitations and a future dominated by sustainable aviation technologies. This initiative aims to control emissions while promoting industry expansion, allowing countries to enhance their networks and economic prospects. While admitting there is scope for refinement, he believes in its foundational strength and the international benchmark it establishes.
With 121 countries having already pledged support for CORSIA, Dodd underlines its widespread endorsement. He mentions the industry’s central role in initiating CORSIA, especially given the complexities of securing consensus among numerous countries with varied interests.
3. De-risking investment in SAF
SAF is already becoming commercially viable, Dodd says, but greater investments are needed to bring the cost down, particularly in developing countries. While there’s a rising demand for SAF, influenced by strict mandates, many still view the fossil fuel sector as a primary source of profit. Waypoint 2050’s estimates, centred primarily on SAF, indicate a need for $1.45 trillion in capital expenditure over the next 30 years. Dodd suggests that public institutions and multilateral development banks could play a role in offsetting the risks tied to SAF investments.
He sees a potential role for private investors in shaping SAF’s future growth. As the perception of SAF shifts towards an opportunity, Dodd expects increased investments from both companies and individuals. This trend could be further influenced by leading entities in the industry.
4. Redefining targets and communicating transparently
Dodd clarifies that the industry never had solid targets for SAF use in the past – they were more of suggestions rather than concrete goals.
This sheds light on the fact that many of the past unmet “targets” weren’t official industry benchmarks, and the actual targets set by the industry have either been met or are in the process of being achieved. That said, as the understanding of SAF production improves, Dodd says the aviation industry is more equipped to set clear and achievable targets.
While discussing the issue of greenwashing claims against airlines, Dodd emphasises the importance of transparency and robust sustainability plans. He believes the industry needs to be ambitious and take a leadership position in climate communication.
While he acknowledges the importance of substantiating claims to avoid greenwashing, he finds some of these allegations unfair since advertising cannot capture the nuances of full sustainability reports. Moreover, he stresses the need for a robust pathway to achieve long-term goals, urging individual companies to determine their own routes to net zero by 2050. Ultimately, he concludes that companies with solid sustainability plans will fare better in the future.
5. New technologies further down the road
Dodd is optimistic about emerging technologies in aviation, notably hydrogen, hybrid-electric, and fully electric solutions.
However, he tempers expectations, particularly around the optimism emanating from new entrants like those from Silicon Valley. Dodd underscores the aviation industry’s unwavering commitment to safety and rigorous testing, suggesting this might slow the rapid deployment of radical new aircraft. However, he does expect small 9-19 seat electric aircraft to be flying by the end of the decade.
In terms of hydrogen, the central question is feasibility – if it is feasible in both aircraft design and distribution it could revolutionise short-haul flights. Dodd refers to the Waypoint scenarios, predicting hydrogen’s potential prominence around 2035-2040 in the mainstream market.
However, regardless of these advancements, he believes SAF will remain essential, especially for medium and long-haul flights, and the existing fleet. He envisions a blend of technologies in the future and emphasises the importance of having multiple strategies to decarbonise aviation.
Thanks for listening to Sustainability in the Air! Subscribe for free to receive our updates straight in your inbox.
‘Sustainability in the Air’ is the world’s leading podcast dedicated to sustainable aviation. Through in-depth conversations with top aviation leaders, we break through the clutter and provide a clear roadmap for a net-zero future.
This episode of the podcast is brought to you by Travelport, a global technology leader that powers bookings for travel suppliers worldwide. Their travel retailing marketplace, Travelport+, empowers travel retailers to understand and communicate the most sustainable travel options.