Reaching the climate targets set by the industry for 2050 is extremely ambitious, but realizable. However, it requires a global program that determines binding interim guidelines and demands significantly more action from industry players, starting immediately. These are the key messages delivered by Celine Hourcade, Founder and Managing Director of Change Horizon, a Swiss-based accelerator of the air freight industry’s sustainable transformation. Change Horizon was instrumental in developing TIACA's successful Blue-Sky Initiative, aimed at setting global environmental standards for the air cargo industry.
With this article, Change Horizon responds to our report “Aviation Climate Lies” to advance the discussion on this essential and – regrettably - existential issue.***
The sum of declared individual corporate ambitions doesn’t equal the global industry ambition
Will the air cargo industry reach net zero by 2050? Great debate to start for sure, but industry pledges have been made for net zero by 2050 by and for the aviation sector: Destination 2050 in Europe, FlyNetZero globally, and the ICAO’s LTAG. (Side note: there is nothing specific to air cargo, but we can argue that most of the environmental impacts of the air cargo sector are caused by the fuel burn of current aircraft).
Their long-term nature (all focusing on 2050) and their lack of intermediate milestones are causing concern. The average tenure of a CEO on the S&P 500 Industrial Index is just 4.9 years, according to Bloomberg. Therefore, most decision makers of today will no longer be in their roles to answer if the target to decarbonize is not met. And there are not many companies with shorter-term decarbonization targets and detailed implementation plans that we could refer to.
What is plan B?
These commitments also all rely heavily on technologies that are not yet available, proven or scalable. Many of the projected solutions to decarbonize aviation that are put on the table, such as Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF – and here, only the ones that do not compete with food stock or damage nature), carbon capture, or hydrogen and electricity-powered aircraft, are still in the research and development stage. These technologies need major investments to meet the growing air traffic demand and may not even ever be available at scale.
I haven’t seen any “Plan B” in case the SAF promise is not delivered.
Driven by the sector itself (is it realistic to expect the industry to self-regulate?), the long-term decarbonization scenarios for aviation all imply an exponential growth in traffic in the coming decades. None of them consider demand-side mitigation measures, changes of lifestyle, and patterns of consumption and production.
Target should not be 2050: define what you can do to make a difference
These commitments to reach net zero by 2050, mainly relying on SAF, also seem to be out of reach for most of the companies in the sector, leaving the impression that there is nothing meaningful to do until we can access SAF in large quantities and have low-emission aircraft ready to fly.
The latest report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on 20MAR23, stressed that we need to take ambitious actions now as the pace and scale of decarbonization worldwide has not been sufficient. Let’s not wait for longer-term innovations to be ready, proven and at scale. As rightly highlighted by IPCC, “there are multiple, feasible and effective options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to human-caused climate change, and they are available now.”
For the air cargo sector, we have identified 30 actionable priorities, detailed in TIACA’s Air Cargo Sustainability Roadmap, that companies can focus on today. There is a role every company in the sector can play in tackling climate change, no matter the size or business complexity.
The ABCD to start: Awareness, Baselining, Commitments, Delivery
Although it may be an uncomfortable truth to face, air cargo companies need to know and assess the environmental impacts of their operations. While the climate impact of an airline is not the same as that of an airport or a ground handling company, knowing where the key impacts are helps companies prioritize actions and to focus efforts on where they can make the biggest difference. This is a fundamental step in any company’s sustainability journey, whether they deliver cargo or build mobile phones.
Our call to all companies in the sector, is to educate themselves on climate change, from leadership to operational teams; get the facts right regarding their scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions to define their baseline, define their priorities and realistic long-term ambitions & short and medium-term smart targets, and identify low-hanging fruits and quick wins to start delivering on their ambitions. Whether it is the broader sustainability agenda or “only” the decarbonization focus, get support from experts to accelerate your projects and amplify your positive impacts!
On avoiding the greenwash trap
Finding the right balance between communicating commitments and real plans to achieve them is key. The ability to showcase a roadmap and the progress measurement strategies and concrete actions in place, will be the real differentiator for those companies that decide to move ahead in their sustainability journey.
Our advice to companies would be simple – identify what your areas of influence are, prioritize them, and talk about what you are really doing and committed to doing, even if this means small steps at first. Avoiding using big statements that are not backed with concrete targets. KPIs and plans to achieve them is the way to go. Get your sustainability progress independently assessed and validated through the BlueSky program or similar.
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