Although aviation is considered a “hard to abate” sector – meaning that reducing CO2 emissions is technically challenging and costly – companies should not use that as an excuse for inaction, but rather to spur bolder action and collaboration, said Nora Lovell Marchant, Vice President of Global Sustainability at American Express Global Business Travel.

“There's a growing recognition amongst boards and all stakeholders that focusing on environmental, social, and governance issues generates value. That means mitigating risk, creating opportunities, increasing competitive advantage, and making companies more resilient for the future so that they can protect against future existential and systemic challenges,” Lovell Marchant said in an interview with Greenbiz editor Joel Makower.

Aviation accounts for 2-3% of global carbon emissions today1, but there is a risk that this could rise to more than 20% by 20502, if no action is taken and air travel grows, and if other sectors are able to cut emissions more quickly, Lovell Marchant said, adding that industry agreements to reduce emissions, such as the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), are not enough to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, which requires halving carbon emissions by 2030 and reaching net-zero by 2050.

Five pillars to build a sustainable travel program

“In the past, corporate travel was very much focused on cost containment, and the lowest logical fare was the currency. Now there's a shift towards lowest logical carbon. Corporations want to ensure that the trips that their employees are taking are the most sustainable trips possible,” she said.

Lovell Marchant laid out five pillars for building a sustainable travel program:

  • Track and report: Establish a baseline and track against it.
  • Influenced choice: Shift to the most sustainable option possible, whether to a different supplier or mode of transport, such as from air to rail.
  • Procure green: Use your procurement power to choose suppliers that share your sustainability goals.
  • Promote offsets: Buy carbon offsets as they a critical bridge to an aviation future with more decarbonization options.
  • Drive towards net zero: Invest in nascent technologies such as sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), electric aircraft, and carbon capture and storage.

“I would encourage corporations to think big picture. Shuffling a couple of business travelers from one airline to another on a particular route is probably imperceptible to the airline at a macro level. That's not going to make them change their behavior. What is required is open and explicit collaboration with your value-chain partners,” Lovell Marchant said.

Embrace offsets to go carbon-neutral today

Some 30% of Fortune 500 companies have set a climate commitment for 20304, putting carbon transparency top of mind for procurement professionals, who must align business objectives with their company’s climate goals, Lovell Marchant said.

“The one thing that travel buyers can do is to take action today while planning for tomorrow. That means purchasing offsets, because you can take your company carbon-neutral today,” Lovell Marchant said. “Carbon offsetting is met with a certain degree of skepticism. But as long as offsets are used properly, they are absolutely critical for corporations as part of their overall decarbonization strategy.”

Corporations also have an important role to play in promoting the use of SAF, which has the potential to reduce aviation carbon lifecycle emissions by up to 80%5 when used neat yet only accounts for less than 0.1% of global jet-fuel supply, she said.

“There is a supply problem because there is a demand problem. There are not clear demand signals that are sending the right messages to producers to make more SAF. There needs to be an unlocking of investors that are sitting on the sidelines. Those investors could be corporations who are flying their employees around the world on these airlines. There's a real opportunity here for corporations to help break this chicken-and-egg issue that is blocking SAF from scaling to its full potential,” she said.

While aviation may take a couple years to recover from the pandemic, global air travel will rebound just as it has when faced with previous crises, driven by the human need to connect and by economic growth in developing markets, Lovell Marchant said.“We truly believe that travel is a force for good. And that's because travel has an unparalleled power to open minds, to connect humans, to connect markets and to increase global prosperity,” she said.

1 IATA, Aviation and Climate Change Fact Sheet April 2021

2 The New York Times, “Air Travel Emissions Vastly Outpace Predictions” 19 Sept 2019

4 Natural Capital Partners, “Response Required”, 6 October 2020

5 Beginner’s Guide to SAF, p7

Journey to net-zero corporate travel

As business travel picks back up, forward-thinking organizations are embracing sustainable practices as part of their travel programs. But how can you get started? What levers do corporate travel departments have for reducing carbon emissions?

Shell Aviation and American Express Global Business Travel are partnering to help aviation enable progress more sustainably. We created an infographic laying out five key steps for building a sustainable business travel program.

Download Infographic

Decarbonizing Corporate Travel: A Conversation with Nora Lovell Marchant

Flightpath host Joel Makower recently spoke with Nora Lovell Marchant, Global Compliance Counsel at American Express Global Business Travel, to discuss her own views on what role corporations have in making aviation more sustainable.

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.

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.

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