An Apollo Project for Sustainable Air Travel

  • Market Insight 20 June 2023 20 June 2023
  • Global

  • Aviation & Aerospace

Is the global aviation industry ready to meet its net zero goals? Ken Quinn believes that net-zero by 2050 may well be achievable, but it will require more cooperation and massive investment by governments and industry – another Apollo Project – to achieve its aspirational goals. In the meantime, airlines should be wary of litigation, enforcement and radical proposals to cut flights on the horizon.

This article was originally published in Aviation Week, 19th June 2023. 

During the recently concluded IATA World Air Transport Forum in Istanbul, Akbar Al Bakar, CEO of Qatar Airways, described the airline industry’s emissions goals as “a PR exercise,” saying the industry will miss its carbon reduction targets in 2030 and net zero goals in 2050. IATA’s Director-General, Willie Walsh refused to accept this characterization, but emphasized getting there won’t be easy, or cheap.

It is time to speak some “plane” truth. The planes being manufactured today—without 100% SAF, hydrogen, or all-electric engines—will likely be flying for the next 20 years or more.  Aviation is a “hard-to-abate” industry. The unfortunate reality is that current pathways to fulfill the aviation industry’s aspirational goal of net-zero GHG emissions by 2050 are narrow and unclear.  Yet, global warming continues, with dire warnings and increasing impatience.  

The World Economic Forum’s “Clean Skies for Tomorrow” initiative remains optimistic the industry can reach its net zero goals.  But we need a lot more than strong demand signals to increase SAF production, and new R&D on hydrogen, ammonia, and battery design. 

Just over 60 years ago, US President John F. Kennedy said: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." He promised to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Seven years later, the Apollo 11 crew landed on moon.  For aviation to be Net Zero in carbon emissions, we need nothing short of a new Apollo Project to address its impact on climate change. 

What the aviation industry doesn’t need are unrealistic mandates to just become green. Nor do cutting flights, imposing carbon taxes on an already overtaxed industry, or attempting to extraterritorially apply emissions trading schemes make sense. Aviation is simply too important to world trade, connecting cultures and people, and lifting people out of poverty to use such blunt instruments.   

The industry needs huge government investment and tax incentives—with the US’s Inflation Reduction Act serving as a useful roadmap—while employing an “all of the above” approach to innovation in seeking alternatives to stop our reliance on fossil fuels. In the meantime, the aviation industry needs to brace for impact: more enforcement, litigation and misguided rules. Airlines are in the cross hairs, and Door No. 2 is not pretty.

Consumer groups want to “ban altogether” aviation claims about being “climate positive” or “climate neutral.” Advertising watchdogs are going after airlines that claim to “fly sustainably.”  

Environmental and consumer groups are trying to bond together in Amsterdam and California to attack airline claims to  “Fly Responsibly” or become carbon neutral, arguing recently  that “the only manner to fly sustainably is to not fly or to fly less.” They are alleging “greenwashing”—making environmental claims that cannot be substantiated. 

Words to the wise: pipe down on environmental claims unless you can back it up with specific information with identifiable metrics. It’s time for risk management to temper marketing enthusiasm. 

Airlines should be justifiably proud, yet realistic, in touting their sustainability efforts. Document them. Take credit for them. Do more. It’s the right thing to do.   

Yet, the industry needs to match aspiration with reality.  It needs to fulfill commitments with technologically feasible, economically affordable mechanisms in a measurable, transparent, verifiable way.  

Don’t make promises that cannot be kept, claims that cannot be supported. Be careful - be very careful - in claiming you’re “greener” than your competitors. But don’t allow agencies, plaintiffs, or environmental groups to force airline into  “green hushing”:  trying to force the airline industry into not touting its many responsible, expensive efforts to become carbon neutral and find solutions for this hard-to-abate industry.  

The industry is responsibly pursuing a basket of decarbonization measures to demonstrate its commitment to sustainability, including fleet renewal, improved air traffic management, SAF, electrical aircraft and vehicles, ammonia, carbon capture, and alternative hydrogen propulsion.  

Net-zero by 2050 may well be achievable in the aviation industry, but it will require more cooperation and massive investment by governments and industry-another Apollo Project-to achieve its aspirational goals.  In the meantime, airlines should be wary of litigation, enforcement and radical proposals to cut flights on the horizon. Airlines should be given credit for doing their part to minimize their carbon footprint, and not punished for stating factually all the expensive, wonderful things they’re doing to get there.  

Five decades after man last stepped on the moon, the Artemis program helped launch a rocket taller than the Statue of Liberty. Man will return to the moon, for a new era of scientific discovery and invention.The aviation industry needs its own moonshot to combat climate change. It won’t be easy; it will be hard. But it can be done.


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