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Aviation Takes Climate Cause Under Its Wing

Giovanni Bisignani – Updated on Feb 27, 2008 – SCMP

Aviation is the lifeblood of the Asian economy. Across the region, 10.5 million aviation-related jobs support US$807 billion in business. So, it should come as no surprise that the industry is growing. What may surprise many is the responsible approach of the industry – globally – to its environmental impacts.

Let’s start with the facts. The Nobel-Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the only authoritative source of global facts. It estimates that aviation contributes 2 per cent of the world’s man-made carbon dioxide. This is expected to grow to 3 per cent by 2050. This is far less than the current emissions from road transport, shipping, deforestation or energy production. Aviation is, and will remain, a small part of the big problem of climate change.

Being small is not a licence for complacency. And a growing carbon footprint is unacceptable for any industry. The challenge is to keep the many benefits of aviation while eliminating any negative impacts.

Aviation has delivered impressive results. Over the past four decades, fuel efficiency has improved 70 per cent. And the billions being invested in new aircraft are helping to put aviation on target for a further 25 per cent improvement in fuel efficiency by 2020.

The solution is not just about buying new aircraft. How we operate them is equally important. The International Air Transport Association (Iata) is working with airlines to identify environmental efficiencies. Last year, we identified operational measures that saved 7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Another 4 million tonnes was saved by shortening more than 300 routes.

In Asia, reorganising air traffic over the Bay of Bengal is saving 50,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. Modernised approach procedures at Japanese airports will save 160,000 tonnes. And, if we could sort out the tangle of air-traffic procedures for the Pearl River Delta’s five airports, a further 250,000 tonnes could be saved. These achievements illustrate the positive impact of Iata’s four-pillar strategy on climate change: invest in new technology; operate aircraft effectively; build and use efficient infrastructure; and, provide positive economic incentives. Together, these initiatives have limited the growth of our carbon footprint to 3 per cent per year, even while air travel expands at between 5 per cent and 6 per cent.

Last June, I challenged the industry to achieve carbon-neutral growth on the way to a carbon-free future by developing a zero-emission aircraft in 50 years’ time. The vision is ambitious. But it is possible.

Asia has a role in building aviation’s future as a benchmark for environmental responsibility. By 2010, intra-Asia traffic will be the largest single market in the world. With an aircraft fleet that is two years younger than the global average of 11.8 years, it already has a head start on fuel efficiency. And the region’s growth is a unique opportunity to develop leading-edge infrastructure.

Asia also has the opportunity to avoid the political hypocrisy that has characterised the debate in Europe. Taxes applied in the name of the environment have only helped solve budget problems. Europe’s rushed unilateral approach to include aviation in its emissions trading scheme is contrary to international treaties.

There are two unique opportunities for Asia. First, transport ministers from the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum laid the groundwork for environmental leadership last year with an agreement that technology, operations and infrastructure must be at the core of aviation’s environmental agenda in the region. Second, the region’s sovereign wealth funds could be used strategically to fund basic research in green technologies. The Group of Eight meeting in Japan later this year can provide a global stage for Asia to show its support for the air transport industry’s strong vision for environmental responsibility.

Giovanni Bisignani is director general and chief executive officer of Iata

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