This excerpt from their Q&A examines the role of sustainable aviation fuels and why the industry must work together to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Keep reading for a first-hand account of their informative sit-down. Please note this transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Joel Makower: How would you describe the state of aviation sustainability today?

Annie Petsonk: Airlines have tried to make some commitments towards sustainability, including things like looking at recycling of plastics that are used onboard the aircraft on passenger flights. They're beginning to look at sustainable alternative fuels. But the scale and tempo of those changes are nowhere sufficient to meet the climate challenge. The climate challenge requires that we get to net zero by mid-century. And aviation is lagging far behind on that.

Joel Makower: So how has the pandemic, how has COVID-19 affected the aviation industry sustainability journey?

Annie Petsonk: COVID has unquestionably dealt the aviation industry a gut punch. Flying is down across the board, although cargo is much less affected, because people are continuing to ship goods by air. But passenger travel is way down. And the jobs in the aviation industry itself are in grave jeopardy.

In our view, this time of crisis for the aviation industry is an inflection point. Now, in the era of COVID and climate change, it's a new leadership crisis for the aviation industry. And the leaders in the industry need to seize this opportunity as an inflection point and transform aviation.

Joel Makower: In your conversations with airlines, what is driving them to take on these initiatives?

Annie Petsonk: There are three factors that are starting to impinge on them, that they're going to have to take account of. The first is the impact of climate change itself. The hot days that climate change is causing means that, on the hottest days, airplanes simply can't take off. There's not enough lift. Runway's too hot. Airports around the United States are located often at coasts. And so they're very susceptible to sea level rise from climate change and flooding. Greater storms, greater turbulence, all of these climate impacts are having a direct impact on aviation. Extreme storms, causing them to cancel unprecedented numbers of flights.

The second is our customers. Customers are beginning to demand climate action from airlines in two ways. First, young people, following Greta Thunberg's lead, have followed the “flight-shame” movement, and said, "We're just not going to fly. We're ashamed to fly. It's so carbon intensive." And that's begun, particularly in Europe, to have an impact on airline travel.

But more importantly, in my book, corporate customers are following that same lead. 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?" During the pandemic, corporate customers are simply not flying. They're getting their business done by video conference. And they're not getting back on planes. If airlines want to, post-COVID, entice those road-warrior corporate customers back onto planes, people who fly five, six, seven, 10 times a year for work, 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.

The third factor that's starting to impinge on airlines is Wall Street. We see a growing movement among investors, looking for sustainability, proof of sustainability among companies. And major investors are beginning to ask airlines, "What are you actually doing that's commensurate with the climate crisis, that's commensurate with the need to move to net-zero, to transform your initiatives to net-zero?" That's just beginning to happen for airlines, but it's an important pressure, and they're starting to feel it.

Joel Makower: What actions or strategies do you recommend that airlines undertake to balance those two realities of a changing climate and this economic recovery?

Annie Petsonk: It's got to come from the top, Joel. 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, putting an internal price on carbon.

The airlines that move first to put an internal price on carbon will be the ones that find it advantageous to make investments today in things like light-weighting. The tray table, and overhead bin, and the cart that the flight attendants push, all of those could be made of much more lighter materials. Light-weighting the interior of the aircraft saves fuel. Every ounce of weight you save on the aircraft saves fuel, saves money, and saves emissions.

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

Joel Makower: You talked about creating an internal price on carbon. What have we learned about figuring out what that price should be?

Annie Petsonk: There's no one set price that's the magic price. But if the airline puts an internal limit on carbon emissions and encourages its employees up and down its value chain to hunt for and find ways to reduce emissions, and share that information across the company, our experience indicates that there are emission reductions readily available that people that just haven't thought of yet because there hasn't been a way to make money for your part of the company when you harvest those initial reductions.

We think that the prices will range. For example, airlines we know have done internal modeling on how much it costs to, at one end of the spectrum, work with your pilots to have them fly more efficiently and, at the other end of the spectrum, retiring aircraft and putting in entirely new, much more efficient aircraft. You could imagine that the carbon price per time of the reductions from those two strategies is very different. We think that by putting this internal cap and price on emissions, airlines will discover where those lower-cost opportunities are inside the airline.

Joel Makower: So you have these internal investments. You also have the investments in sustainable aviation fuels, and the infrastructure needed for that. Who's going to pay for all this?

Annie Petsonk: Sustainable aviation fuel is the big one that the airlines would really like to crack. And, right now, the price differential between conventional jet fuel, which hardly anybody's buying, because hardly anybody's flying during the COVID crisis, the price differential between jet fuel and truly sustainable aviation fuel is very large.

What we think is needed is a joint effort involving governments, the 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, provided that that sustainable aviation fuel meets very rigorous quality standards.

We want to avoid any fuel being called sustainable if it involves, say, the destruction of rain forests to grow palm plantations, to produce palm oil to power jets with. That doesn't help solve the climate crisis. That makes the crisis worse. So the International Civil Aviation Organization has developed some pretty rigorous standards. We think those need to be the floor. And that support from governance or the private sector should only go to funerals that can demonstrate 50, 60, 70, 80 percent improvement over conventional jet fuel.

Joel Makower: When we talk again in two or three years, what's the story that you and the Environmental Defense Fund hope to be able to tell about aviation sustainability?

Annie Petsonk: First, I'd like to see a grouping of the world's biggest customers of aviation to be able to say, "When we start flying again, we're going to do so at 100 percent carbon-neutral. We are going to work with airlines, banks, and governments to finance that transition, to bring down the cost of sustainable aviation fuel, and to generate the demand for enough sustainable aviation fuel and carbon offsets in the beginning until those fields are widely available to cover the entire Scope 3 travel emissions of our accompanies."

Second, the demand for transformation needs to extend to the manufacturers of aircraft, engines, and avionics, the components of aircraft, so that the hunt for more efficient aircraft is driven by the climate crisis, the urgency of solving the climate crisis. I say this with some bias because my father was one, but aircraft engineers do amazing engineering, and they do so when they're presented with a challenge. My father was given the challenge of designing a reversing propeller for the blimp in the wartime. He and his team of engineers did it in rapid time. I think the aviation industry has a tremendous reservoir of talent that is motivated to work to solve the climate crisis and to solve aviation's impact on the climate crisis, to get on the transformation to net zero as fast as possible. 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.

Joel Makower: What keeps you up at night about aviation sustainability? What's the thing that you worry about most?

Annie Petsonk: I worry most, frankly, that the airline CEOs are understandably preoccupied with the bottom line for their companies and, with trying to protect the jobs, the workers who have grown up in the aviation industry, they will not move swiftly enough to bring the climate crisis into the forefront of their thinking. 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. But if they don't move to tackle the climate crisis and put it at the core of their rebuilding from COVID, then the risk is that aviation will rebuild from COVID only to be confronted with the climate crisis and another dramatic reduction in flying that leaves jobs stranded. This is a moment, an inflection point. 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.

Joel Makower: What keeps you hopeful?

Annie Petsonk: The people I know who work in the sector, who understand the science of climate change, understand the need to move swiftly to tackle the climate crisis. The people who are working outside the sector, but driving innovation in alternative fuels, in reducing emissions in the carbon markets to generate offset credits. Those give me inspiration and help me believe that working together, local communities with airports, airlines, and major customers and governments, we can together get this done.

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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