Air passenger traffic is expected to plummet 66% in 2020 because of the pandemic and it may be years before it recovers to pre-pandemic levels.[1] That means industry leaders have been understandably focused on protecting the bottom line and minimising job losses, says Annie Petsonk, International Counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund.

But if they don't move to tackle the climate crisis and put it at the core of their rebuilding from COVID-19, then the risk is that aviation will rebuild from COVID-19 only to be confronted with the climate crisis and another dramatic reduction in flying,” she says in an interview with Joel Makower, Executive Editor of GreenBiz Group.

“It's time for aviation leadership to seize this moment and rebuild in a way that puts the industry on a transformation to net-zero [carbon emissions],” Petsonk says. “If they do, they can build an aviation system that will allow the world to continue to fly, allow people to continue to work in the aviation sector, and all the benefits that aviation provides in terms of traveling and connectivity and economic development to continue.”

Petsonk suggests that such bold action is increasingly a core expectation of passengers – especially business travellers who are many airlines’ chief source of revenue.

“Companies have taken on important climate-change commitments. And they're starting to ask their airlines, ‘How are you going to help me reduce my scope-three or travel-related carbon emissions?’ They're going to have to show that they're actually moving fast to tackle the climate crisis, and help those corporate customers help meet their climate commitments,” she says.

Innovating a path to net-zero

The aviation industry has committed to halving CO2 emissions from international flights by 2050 relative to 2005 levels. Some even aspire to reach net-zero emissions. But for many airlines, the impact of COVID-19 has turned into a struggle for survival and raised questions about their ability and commitment to meeting carbon-reduction goals.

Petsonk, whose father flew an open-cockpit biplane and tried to invent a process to turn farm waste into airplane fuel, believes that now is the time for the aviation industry to lean into its commitments to decarbonization, particularly in ramping up use of sustainable aviation fuel.

“What we think is needed is a joint effort involving governments, airlines, and their largest customers to develop innovative financial instruments and government support to bridge the gap between conventional jet fuel and sustainable aviation fuel,” Petsonk says.

In addition to buying more sustainable aviation fuel, investing in new technologies and operational efficiencies, and tapping the power of nature-based carbon offsets, airlines should also move to put an internal price on carbon. That will help drive investments in programmes, such as refitting airplane cabins with ultra-light materials, that are hard to justify under current business models, Petsonk says.

Time for leadership

Petsonk warns that failure to take bold action on climate now could result in an even more damaging and expensive crisis for aviation. Potential threats include flight operations disrupted by extreme weather events, coastal airports endangered by rising sea levels, impatient governments imposing harsher regulations, concerned investors withdrawing financial support, and disillusioned customers shunning flying altogether.

“We really see the need for leadership of airlines now, at this time when CEOs are just trying to pick their companies up off the ropes, to really think about and embrace ambitious climate goals. It starts with setting an internal airline climate goal that's much more ambitious than any of the ones that are currently on the books, transforming to net zero [emissions], and putting an internal price on carbon,” Petsonk says.

“With those kinds of internal drivers – a cap on carbon, and a price on carbon, inside the airline – the investment picture changes. And investments that can help reduce emissions move to the fore.”

“The aviation industry has a tremendous reservoir of talent that is motivated to solve the climate crisis and to solve aviation's impact on the climate crisis,” she says. “The new designs of aircraft engines, electric planes - we can only begin to envision these today, but the sooner we begin that transformation, the faster it will occur.”

Questions? Need more information? Contact us.

Get more information about Shell Aviation, the future of sustainable flying and how we can help make this happen for your organization. Tell us a little about you and we’ll get in touch.

Watch: Nature’s role in tackling aviation emissions

Airlines are feeling pressure to curb CO2 emissions today. Until sustainable fuel and technology solutions are deployed to help avoid and reduce emissions directly, the industry will also need comprehensive carbon offset programmes if it is to meet its net emissions reduction targets. The Nature Conservancy’s Chris Webb points to airlines’ opportunity to benefit from the most effective carbon sink “technology” available today: nature itself.

Watch: What will it take to scale sustainable aviation fuel?

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the aviation industry hard. But as airlines chart a path to recovery, part of their return must include reducing the industry’s contribution to climate change. Bryan Sherbacow, Chief Commercial Officer of biofuel producer World Energy, discusses what it will take to help sustainable aviation fuel scale to the point where it will be competitive with conventional jet fuel.

Watch: How can aviation usher in a “low emissions age”?

The aviation industry is running out of time to deploy carbon-mitigation tools, such as sustainable aviation fuel, and consumers are increasingly demanding that airlines take action today. David Hone, Shell’s top climate adviser has warned that the short window in which to act poses a risk that the sector will fail to hit its goal to halve CO2 emissions by 2050 relative to 2005.

The state of aviation sustainability today: a conversation with Annie Petsonk

Recently, our Flightpath host, Joel Makower, sat down with Annie Petsonk, International Counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund, to discuss how the industry’s course to recovery must also track toward a more sustainable future.