British Airways boss: No 'silver bullets' for aviation to tackle climate change

EXCLUSIVE: The chief executive of the second-largest UK airline has insisted that the company remains "hell-bent" on upscaling innovation to promote sustainability, but also believes that a plethora of collaborative solutions will be needed for the industry to effectively tackle climate change.

British Airways boss Alex Cruz believes that innovation will spur decarbonisation, but not by focusing on isolated solutions

British Airways boss Alex Cruz believes that innovation will spur decarbonisation, but not by focusing on isolated solutions

This year marks British Airways’ centenary year and, as the airline undertakes new competition-based challenges to help it shape a sustainable future for flying, the global aviation sector is entering a period of significant technological and legislative disruption.

In the UK, a new Sector Deal for the aerospace industry, outlining plans to funnel £343m into sustainable aviation projects, looks set to drive new solutions to the market. And at a policy level, criticisms over the nations “creative carbon accounting”, which exclude non-territorial flights and shipping, could well see politicians focus on spurring radical decarbonisation in the aviation and shipping sectors.

For British Airways’ boss Alex Cruz, the answers lie in collaboration and innovation. “This is not a challenge we can go at alone and we are hell-bent on driving as many initiatives as we can,” Cruz told edie. “But always in collaboration, there are many actors and many players, all looking for solutions.

“There is no 'silver bullet', but there is a resoundingly huge need for collaboration on solutions. British Airways has a number of 'firsts' in this area and we want to drive this spirit further. We need researchers across multiple platforms to work together with government regulators and private-sector decision-makers to be involved.”

Collective force

Aviation currently accounts for 2% of all global carbon emissions, and 12% of the transport sector's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, the need to accelerate the transition to sustainable aviation is clear, with recent research revealing that flights will generate around 43 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions by 2050 – more than 4% of the world’s entire remaining carbon budget.

As the the second-largest UK airline, British Airways was the first to establish an internal environment team in the 1990s; the first to set up carbon trading in 2002; and, in 2009, pushed for an industry-wide target of reducing emissions by 50% by 2050.

Looking ahead, Cruz believes that the topic of climate change is now reaching a fever pitch and that the company can further improve the visibility and impact of its sustainability initiatives with support from other businesses in the group. 

“The company has gone through different stages, and certain topics have been more prominent,” Cruz said, alluding to low-ranking environmental performances in 2015. “The teams of people and the funds allocated to work on sustainability have increased over time, but our work over the years is becoming more visible as our parent company [International Airlines Group] pulls our resources across the other areas of the business.

“If you look at some of our achievements, I wouldn’t deny that by pulling more airlines into our group we’ve created an environment of even more support. This has helped to show visibility.”

Fuel for the Future

Despite a turbulant political backdrop, British Airways has made relatively strong progress to decarbonise its operations and flights. Emissions have been lowered by more than 360,000 tonnes since 2014 by focusing on an array of solutions, including reducing the number of engines used to taxi, optimising flight routes, and decreasing the weight of aircraft and in-flight items such as magazines. The airline had also invested in more than 550 efficient airport vehicles for ground staff and operations, replacing diesel tugs in the process.

Cruz's firm has also placed a big focus on developing sustainable alternatives for jet fuel to help hit international targets aimed at limiting climate change. As such, last Friday (3 May), the winners of the BA 2119: Future of Fuels challenge were announced. Launched by British Airways in collaboration with Cranfield University, the challenge sought to develop ways to power long-haul flights for at least five hours without producing any carbon emissions.

University College London (UCL) was the eventual winner of the challenge, for a solution that turns household waste into fuel. The solution focuses on using modular plants to convert waste near landfill sites, and the creators estimate that it could deliver 3.5 million tonnes of jet fuel annually by 2050, resulting in negative emissions and the equivalent of taking more than 5.5 million cars off the road every year.

UCL will receive £25,000 and an opportunity to present its solution to the board of the International Airlines Group. More broadly, the Group is investing $400m on sustainable fuel development over the next 20 years.

Knowledge-sharing

Cruz notes that the innovation programmes like this won't always generate scalable solutions, but that bringing more sectors around the table to learn from the projects will help spur action in the future.

“I don’t believe that 100% of the initiatives industry-wide will work,” he added. "But that’s not the point; we have to keep pushing and supporting because there will be some real winners. In fact, the unsuccessful ones will have some interesting learnings for the winners.

“This makes knowledge-sharing important. We’re not scared of embracing innovation; we are a very regulated industry and there’s so much testing. I feel quite confident, from a risk perspective, that we’re fine.”

Matt Mace



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