Decarbonising air travel: The challenge for airlines and their corporate customers
Alwyn Hopkins, EY UK&I Advanced Manufacturing & Mobility Sustainability Leader, and Sian Ellis, EY Sustainable Sourcing Assistant Director, explain why everyone across the aviation value chain needs to contribute to reducing CO2 emissions.
Aviation connects our globalised economy, enabling the rapid transportation of goods, facilitating face-to-face meetings, and allowing specialists to trade services internationally.
However, with aviation accounting for over 2% of global energy-related CO2 emissions in 2021, there is a growing concern about the climate impacts of contrails, and a projected growth in flights through to 2050 and beyond. Airlines and their corporate customers are facing increasing pressure from policymakers, investors and the public to take action on climate change.
Decarbonising the industry is challenging; emerging technologies such as hydrogen-powered and electric propulsion solutions are not yet realistic options for international aviation, and this is delaying the implementation of low- and zero-emission flight. As such, cooperation across the aviation value chain is imperative to drive meaningful action and airlines and customers alike need to carefully consider their role in these efforts.
What is the aviation industry doing to decarbonise?
As the group with a Scope 1 emissions footprint from aviation, and the one most impacted by upcoming financial measures (such as CORSIA, a carbon offsetting scheme which will be mandatory from 2027), the aviation industry continues to take ambitious action in three main areas:
1) Reducing propulsion emissions intensity
The primary decarbonisation lever for the industry is reducing Scope 1 emissions associated with fuel combustion in jet engines. Consequently, operators are focusing in particular on the development and rollout of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), with IATA reporting that over 50 airlines are already using it. However, constrained feedstock availability and limitations to the extent to which SAF can drive decarbonisation means that investment into hydrogen and electric solutions is also progressing – albeit with a longer lead time.
2) Enhancing operational efficiency
Changes in flight and ground vehicle fleets and behaviours can also reduce airlines’ Scope 1 emissions. Some airlines have tested behavioural science methodologies to help pilots use less fuel – and researchers from Reading University found that prioritising minimisation of fuel burn over airspeed could reduce CO2 emissions by 4.2% in certain simulations. Focusing on the negative impacts of contrails, meanwhile, organisations such as Eurocontrol are working to reduce the incidence of water vapour contrails based upon flight patterns.
3) Abating indirect emissions
While the first two levers focus on Scope 1 emissions, the industry’s footprint also includes indirect emissions, over which it does have a level of control. Sustainable procurement policies are therefore becoming the norm. Going beyond concern for cradle-to-gate (and cradle-to-grave) emissions relating to aircraft purchases and extending to consideration of Power Purchase Agreements and policies on procurement of in-flight meals and amenities.
How business travellers can make a difference
For many corporates, action on aviation-related emissions is a priority to address their Scope 3 emissions. For example, to reach net zero by 2025, EY teams are committed to a 35% reduction in travel emissions.
Considering the actions that the aviation industry is taking, there are two areas that corporates looking to decarbonise their business travel should focus on:
1) SAF strategy and engagement
Engaging with aviation operators that are focused on decarbonising propulsion can help procure more efficient travel. In light of this, EY developed a publicly available Sustainable Aviation Fuel strategy playbook, which provides guidance on strategy for corporates looking to capitalise on the SAF progress made by the aviation industry.
This strategy can extend beyond procurement and into investment in some of the underlying infrastructure required for evolving decarbonisation technology (e.g., Power to Liquid), or collaboration with other players in the value chain on innovation in the area of decarbonising propulsion.
2) Behavioural change and operational efficiencies
Like airlines, corporates can act on aviation emissions through behaviour change and operational efficiencies. For example, EY is working to help empower its teams to make smarter decisions on travel. This includes supporting professionals to:
- Choose virtual meetings where possible
- Combine multiple appointments into single trips
- Select central locations for international meetings
To support this, the EY and IBM Sustainable Travel Approval Tool is a technology application targeted at encouraging lower-carbon travel options. EY personnel can access a dashboard outlining their individual travel emissions. Project teams can estimate emissions to determine the right amount of travel to successfully support an engagement, while considering the client’s carbon goals as well as those of the EY organisation.
Given the scale of the net zero challenge, airlines cannot achieve decarbonisation on their own. By focusing on sustainable procurement, working cooperatively with the value chain, and helping internal teams make smarter decisions, businesses can help mitigate the environmental impacts of corporate travel.
The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organisation or its member firms.
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