Guest comment: IATA needs a new narrative when it comes to emissions

Our guest columnist questions whether IATA can do more when it comes to reporting aviation’s impact on the environment

Buffeted by demands to act on climate change, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has come up the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) to demonstrate it is doing its bit.

The goal – to stabilise carbon dioxide emissions from international civil aviation at 2020 levels and reduce emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2050 – has been hailed as historic by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). We’re told that CORSIA will see airlines invest in technology, operations and infrastructure to reduce emissions, and then offset the rest.

But behind the scenes, IATA’s muscular PR team is lobbying hard and recycling weak arguments. It’s an approach that’s not only short-sighted; it risks damaging the reputation of the industry.

For decades, IATA’s opening premise on climate change has been that aviation emissions are insignificant compared to other sectors. It’s still pedalling the same story with CORSIA.

Granted, emissions from aviation are comparatively low at the present time: somewhere between 2-3 per cent of the global total, according to some sources. Yet, this is a simplistic, short-term view. It is ignorant of aviation’s growth, the impact of emissions at altitude and decarbonisation in other sectors.

Over the past 50 years the fuel burn of new aircraft has fallen by an average of 1.3 per cent per year

Factor all this in and aviation’s share could be as high as 15 per cent in a few decades. IATA’s decision to keep quiet about this is risky. Especially as the visibility of aviation emissions increases.

Headline news
In 2019, a company owning something other than a dirty coal-fired power plant made it onto the list of Europe’s top ten polluters for the first time. Ryanair didn’t dispute its place in the top ten, but it was quick to assert it was Europe’s greenest airline. Whatever the merits of the Irish carrier’s claim might be, the big picture impact is aviation emissions on the front pages.

In its attempts to promote the sector’s efforts to reduce emissions, IATA is taking advantage of CORSIA to recycle what it claims is an impressive average improvement in fuel efficiency of 1.5 per cent per year from 2009 to 2020.

Over the past 50 years the fuel burn of new aircraft has fallen by an average of 1.3 per cent per year. Instead of ‘impressive’, ‘just a little bit better than average’ would be a reasonable way to describe IATA’s performance over the past decade.

The sucker punch against IATA’s position is the bigger concern that airline manufacturers continue to lag behind the United Nations’ fuel efficiency goals for new aircraft.

Unfazed by all these facts, IATA’s media gurus come back with a quick ‘one-two’ about the potential of biofuels. To say IATA is bullish about biofuels would be an understatement.

Its CORSIA press feeds are packed with facts; 180,000 commercial flights have flown on biofuels to date, a billion passengers could have flown on a biofueled plane by 2025 and emissions from biofuels could be 80 per cent lower than traditional aviation fuels.

The idea that planes powered by plant fuel present an emissions panacea is nothing short of pie in the sky.

To say IATA is bullish about biofuels would be an understatement

In 2008, Virgin flew a 747 from London to Amsterdam on a blended biofuel. Today, over a decade later, biofuels account for less than 0.1 per cent of aviation’s total fuel consumption and the government isn’t expecting a significant uptake of biofuels in the future.

The government’s Committee on Climate Change reckons sustainable biomass will be limited to around 10 per cent of total aviation fuel demand by 2050.

On the ropes, IATA’s media legions opt for attack as the best form of defence. Their argument goes something like this: ‘aviation is an engine of global economic growth and deserves special dispensation’. Full stop.

Aviation is important, but it’s not omnipotent. The automotive business isn’t arguing that it’s special and different as governments worldwide double down on vehicle emissions.

But having learned how to roll with the punches, IATA’s PR teams rely on what they believe is the ultimate fallback position. The international nature of aviation, which has resulted in never-ending discussions at international conferences about the difficulty of allocating emissions to countries, has ensured aviation continues to receive a get-out-of-jail-free card.

In a climate constrained world, IATA’s support of this argument verges on irresponsible. Surely it can’t be beyond the wit of somebody to come up with a solution, and IATA could help to make it happen.

If aviation was in the hanger with everyone else, rather than flying around outside pretending to be special and different and creating its own unique, historic solutions, then the sector’s approach to offset its emissions might be legitimate.

The business travel industry, a friend of the aviation sector and an influential IATA stakeholder, can throw its hat in the ring and encourage IATA to change course or it can choose to watch ringside and cheer on yet more constructive ambiguity.

What do you think is the right thing to do?

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