“There's a growing demand and interest by both business customers, but also with your general consumers, around airlines needing to reduce the footprint,” said Angela Foster-Rice, the former Managing Director of Environmental Affairs and Sustainability for United Airlines who is now Senior Vice President at Everland, which markets and sells nature-based carbon offsets.

“We've seen now something like a thousand companies that have committed to science-based targets for lowering their carbon emissions,” Foster-Rice said in a recent interview with Joel Makower, Executive Editor of GreenBiz. “Something like 65 percent of customers are now making decisions on whether companies are helping them with their ethical beliefs, such as about the environment.”

“We know that many businesses and customers want to be able to continue to fly, want to be able to reduce their footprint, and very much need the fuel suppliers and the airlines to help them get there,” Foster-Rice said.

The aviation industry’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) has committed to cutting CO2 emissions from international flights to half of 2005 levels by 2050 through a mix of more efficient technology and operations, use of SAF, and carbon offsets.

But Foster-Rice said that many consumers are expecting even more.

“We have already seen companies demanding more than what CORSIA offers,” Foster-Rice said. “When they think about their travel footprint, they're not just thinking about the growth in their travel. They're really thinking about all of their emissions, domestic, international, both the baseline and the growth. So I would say today we're already seeing customers' interest going beyond what CORSIA demands of airlines.”

One challenge to progress has been a chicken-and-egg view of the market for SAF, which is a key measure to tackle aviation emissions in the medium- to long-term but now makes up less than 0.1% of total jet-fuel production, Foster-Rice said. Airlines want the cost of SAF to come down before committing to buying more, while producers say they need long-term offtake agreements to give them the certainty to invest in more production.

“When you're looking at how much fuel is out there to buy that's low-carbon, there's very small quantities. As an airline you could wait and say, well the fuel is not here, so therefore I can't buy it. But the truth of the matter is that it's actually in reverse. If the airlines don't demand it and don't put their skin in the game and actually commit to long-term offtakes, then the facilities won't be built.”

Foster-Rice envisioned a model where airlines, corporate customers, and fuel suppliers join forces to offset CO2 emissions from aviation, a sector seen as considerably harder to abate than road transport due to challenges in developing electric or hydrogen-powered aircraft.

“We need to be engaging in technology, and we are, but the problem is that the larger footprint around aviation is in those longer flights, and it's really the smaller flights that will be enabled by these technologies, at least in the several decades to come,” Foster-Rice said. “There's really not the ability to just change those technologies. We can't wait for those technologies.”

As for carbon offsets, intermediaries have been taking advantage of low prices due to lower emissions caused by the pandemic to buy up available offsets with the intent of selling them later when prices rise as the global economy recovers, Foster-Rice said.

“If airlines aren't coming to the table sooner then they'll actually face higher pricing long-term, both for fuel and for offsets,” Foster-Rice said.

When considering offsets, buyers need to consider not only whether it follows a globally recognized standard, but also whether the underlying project aligns with other social-responsibility goals, Foster-Rice said.

“How can I be sure that the impact is one that I want to tell a story about to my customers? Is it water quality? Are you protecting biodiversity? Things that may tie in not only to the carbon sequestration, but also to broader goals a company may have in their own corporate social responsibility.”

Moreover, helping people understand the impact of buying offsets for their flights, or choosing a flight powered by SAF, will help feed a virtuous cycle in which success begets more success in decarbonizing aviation, Foster-Rice said.

“It has to be something that's a tangible product that people believe in and they get regular reports about what impact they've had. Like if somebody has helped to buy SAF or has bought offsets, knowing what impact they had with that flight that they decarbonized can really help them believe and understand that change is happening because of those purchases.”

Meeting expectations for sustainable aviation: A conversation with Angela Foster-Rice

Flightpath host Joel Makower, recently spoke with Angela Foster-Rice, senior vice president at Everland and former head of sustainability at United Airlines, to discuss what it will take to make aviation more sustainable.

Watch: Powering sustainable flight for the next generation

There is no singular answer to reduce aviation emissions— the key lies in several methods being implemented at scale by multiple stakeholders, simultaneously, according to President of Shell Aviation Anna Mascolo.

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: Aviation faces inflection point as climate challenge looms

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. Read about their Q&A about the role of sustainable aviation fuels and why the industry must work together to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

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