Carbon emissions, climate change and the future of air transport – a conversation with Michael Schneider

March 2021

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Carbon emissions, climate change and the future of air transport – a conversation with Michael Schneider

March 2021

Michael Schneider – Assistant Director Aviation Environment at IATA (International Air Transport Association) – shared with us the current initiatives and plans of IATA in terms of carbon emission control and climate change actions, and his vision of the air transport sector in this very disrupted period.

TRANSCRIPT

Marie: Hi, everybody. Today I’m having a chat with Michael Schneider from IATA the International Air Transport Association. He’s an assistant director there, focusing on environmental issues. He’s a carbon offset and carbon, market expert. So thanks for being with us, Michael. Hi, how are you?

 

Michael: Oh, Marie. Thank you. It’s good to be with you here on this call.

 

Marie: Excellent. So as you know, I have a couple of questions for you today. And first, I guess, addressing the elephant in the room. I heard aviation transport is one of the sectors that has been, you know, the most hit by the pandemic? Uhm are you feeling optimistic about the future?

 

Michael: Well, let me say, of course, it’s tragic and I mean, my heart is bleeding to see aviation on its knees. So, of course, this sector is extremely affected by the pandemic. And of course, we’re all somehow affected on a personal level. In the case of aviation, it’s dramatic, because I think a lot of people forget that aviation is really what we call an economic engine. And it’s really essential for many countries and not only countries that rely heavily on tourism. And I looked at some of the numbers and when it comes to actually jobs, pre-COVID, 87 million jobs were directly or indirectly supported by aviation, by end of 2020, we looked at close to 40 million jobs. So nearly 46 million jobs lost. So that’s quite dramatic. And that tells you the situation that we’re in. So these jobs are really related, directly to aviation, but also the whole supply chain or anyone that sort of supports the aviation side of things in general. So when we talk about those things, we forget maybe also that our holiday provides someone else’s income somewhere.  In terms of GDP. So how can we be optimistic in face of this epidemic, I strongly believe there’s a natural drive for humans to explore the world to seize opportunities, to travel, the willingness to travel, or go to the theater, also for leisure or business, etc. And what I can hear from people when I talk to my friends, family, I mean, I think most of them are quite eager to step on the plane,  as soon as it’s safe to do so. And of course, we will try to work on some solution. It’s not easy. It’s not an easy task, because we need to cooperate closely with governments. There are some very specific ideas, how this could be done with travel corridors testing. Of course, the vaccine sort of brings… It’s sort of a silver lining, I would say, and we hope we get through this. But yeah, reality still looks pretty gloomy. But the hope is certainly there because I think the willingness and the eagerness to travel for everyone is there. I think there’s also an expectation, a very clear expectation when we do the restart, that we do this in the most sustainable way.

 

Marie: Absolutely. That’s a very good point. So yeah, indeed, there is hope and hope that it restarts with a different mindset as well. So I know IATA engaged in a number of initiatives, to lessen the impact of air transportation on the environment, which is something that actually, passengers start demanding, and companies as well. So could you tell us a bit more about these initiatives?

 

Michael: Absolutely, yes. Let me start by saying that the sector itself has made some very clear commitments and has come up with a number of goals or objectives that we want to achieve by 2050. And actually, there are three distinct targets that we set ourselves. One is related to the fuel efficiency improvement target. That basically was our first initial target, that we wanted to improve fuel efficiency by 1.5%, year over a year till 2020. So now we pass 2020. The good news is we have actually surpassed that objective, we are hovering around 2%. And it’s mainly due to nuclear aircraft equipment being introduced being much more fuel-efficient. Then the next target that we actually right in the midst of it is the carbon-neutral growth target. And we can talk about how we can achieve that. Basically, even so, we are expected to grow as a sector of course due to COVID there’s no growth, and hardly any traffic to be seen. But in the pre COVID times, we made some very good assumptions about how far we would be growing. And that was certainly a growing sector. So how can we achieve that growth, but remain on the emissions level of 2019, for example? Of course, once we bounce back, hopefully soon, we will be working on that. Then there is a clear reduction in net aviation emissions of 50% by 2050. And this is relative to 2005 levels. So we want to be part of that solution, as I have been representing the industry. And how do we achieve those targets? I think that’s a very important question. It’s good to have targets, but you need to also be able to sort of substantiating how we’re going to meet those targets. And it’s really based on what we call the four pillars. One pillar being the improvement of technology. Radical new aircraft models that we will see coming out, not in the very near future, but in the long future. And then, of course, battery, electric-powered aircraft on short, or at least maybe not a long haul, certainly not a long haul. But of course, hydrogen plays a role but is also a sustainable aviation field that we’re already working on. So it’s a proven technology. We have more than 300,000 flights already. The problem is that we need to ramp up the fuels to access those fuels in first place because they are a very rare commodity. Another pillar would be the improvement in Aircraft Operations, flying more efficiently reducing aircraft, the weight of aircraft, basically putting aircraft on a diet. And here there can be done a lot of things, you know, lightweight seatings,  improvements, anything that reduces weight from the aircraft. And then, of course, flying also more efficiently in the airspace. Talking about flying efficiently, more in the airspace infrastructure improvements is another pillar. And here we’re working with governments to improve you know how the different  Air Traffic Management providers working together to make it a more seamless way of doing it and make it more efficient. So there are huge potential savings up to 20% of fuel savings could be actually achieved if those systems would be working better together. And then last but not least, there’s something that we’ve been working very hard to get on board as a sector. It’s a global backbench measure. And some of you may have heard it already, the carbon offsetting reduction scheme for international aviation which is an IATA scheme, where basically we’re the first sector globally agreed to cap our ambitions. So this ties in with our carbon neutrality goal, and we basically, in the short term, and midterm will be investing in carbon offsets of carbon credits to really achieve that. Carbon neutral growth of the industry of course will play an important role, at least in the short term to reach that. Yeah, I think that’s really sort of the high-level initiative, of course, airlines themselves, have their own initiatives that, you know, could be different things. It could be a single-use plastic reducing dose from an aircraft, etc.

 

Marie: Yeah. It’s really good to see all these initiatives in it. And you’re right to mention that the airlines have their own targets. But yeah, this is really good to hear. I mean, the change for aviation is coming from within. We discussed that earlier. Remember, it’s also coming from the passengers. But what about the freight forwarders? You know, do you see a clear shift in the way they approached environmental issues?

 

Michael: Yes, definitely. In recent years, we have seen a clear shift in their approach, but also the expectations and not having lots of discussion in the framework for us but also shippers because obviously, they work hand in hand. And my view is that the shippers themselves that basically selling goods to customers, they have set very clear targets because the expectation is when you buy some sneakers or some piece of garment you wanted to be having a very low carbon footprint. I think more and more people are conscious of those things, you know, when you think how those things are produced and how they actually end up in the shop or at home or when delivered to you. Obviously, there is a carbon footprint, and the makers of those goods, have clearly understood that this is also a selling factor, it’s a commercial factor that plays a role. So they set themselves targets, on how to reduce this carbon footprint that comes from the logistics side of things. This has to be pushed down to the freight forwarders, who work very closely with shippers, organizing, basically, the shipments for the shippers, and they put a lot of pressure on the freight forwarders to find ways of improving the last logistics side of things in order to reduce emissions. And then, of course, the direct interface, it’s the freight forwarders. With the airlines, the cargo airlines who then work together or need to work together to find ways of reducing this could be by flying more optimal routes, using more efficient equipment. And here airlines have made a huge investment. When it comes to those new aircraft models that are from one to the next model, perhaps 20% to 25% more efficient. The problem is, often the airlines have a mixed fleet, the focus is typically on passenger traffic because it makes up 95% of the global traffic and the rest is really covered traffic. And then those passenger aircraft after some time, when they sort of getting phased out as a passenger aircraft, will be transformed to freighters. And then you end up with a much older fleet than on the passenger side. And again, it’s a huge investment. So there are some challenges because the cargo fleet is typically a much older fleet, once used for passenger traffic. But then, of course, you could operate more efficiently on your aircraft. reducing weight, for example, you got the UL DS, it’s the containers basically used. They could be from the lightweight material, the packaging can also be reduced to again, safe weight. And then last but not least I mentioned before, it’s what we call the SAF the sustainable aviation fuels. That seems to be actually great interest on the freight forwarder site to make use of those fuels and to collaborate and find ways of how those fields could be deployed. At work, technically, there’s no problem issue at all, and it’s safe to fly on those fields. Again, the problem is we need to scale up or the production of those fields needs to be scaled up. Because right now it’s a very rare commodity. It’s quite expensive.

And yeah, we need to see also government assistance. And that’s one of those cases that those producers, those fields, maybe also obtain incentives, because our sector is harder to decarbonize than any of the other sectors, we will be relying on liquid fuels for a long time, much longer time. For example, a car can switch to battery-powered mechanisms, but we cannot easily because of the laws of physics, the weight and thrust, and everything. And would basically make it much harder for us to capitalize. And one point that we’re also discussing a lot with freight forwarders is understanding data. So freight forwarders are very keen to get hold of Kevin Freedman shipment data, understanding methodologies that are being used for the calculation of the carbon footprint. And then of course communicating sort of the quantitative and qualitative efforts that the airlines are doing. But they’re clearly more and more focused on those things from the freight forwarders’ side.

 

Marie: Yeah, that’s really interesting. Obviously, innovation, technology and data management, data seeking, operations efficiency is really clear. Essential points, critical points, I would say. So yeah, I guess we’re going to see a lot more in that space in the coming months and years. Even if already something is happening. And despite the whole situation,  as you said it’s going to be an opportunity for a new restart. So that’s good. Thanks for those thoughts. And as you know, we’re running a few more of these chats with other experts. What would you like to ask the next one?

 

Michael: It really depends on what type of entity or who is the expert, which sector this expert is representing. In general, I think I’m always keen to understand some of what the expectation is from the aviation sector, how we can collaborate to create a higher impact when it comes to reducing our environmental impact. Also, I would like to see what sort of interest exists in non-co2 related topics. I mentioned before single-use plastic on aircraft, which is becoming more and more of a topic. I think there’s some work being done IATA supports the airlines with this. Wildlife protection is something that’s also actually happening, that most people are not so much aware of. But there’s a lot of engagement on the airline side, too, make sure that the smuggling of endangered species and trophy hunting and all those things. Human trafficking is also important, you know, with a lot of more migration happening globally. So yeah, there are different areas that we’re working on. And of course, it’s always good to take from other parties what the expectation is, and having that communication and collaboration.

 

Marie: Yes, well, indeed, we will ask those questions, and maybe we’ll put you in touch with them. If there’s something interesting to discuss further, and they will be probably okay, Well, thanks so much, Michael, for your time. And it’s been very instructive and good luck for these initiatives that you’re running at IATA.

 

Michael: Thanks very much. All the best.

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