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Thu 1 Nov 2007 04:00 AM

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Zero tolerance

Research suggests airlines contribute little to environmental pollution, so why are they continuously blamed?

Question:Research suggests airlines contribute little to environmental pollution, so why are they continuously blamed?

Expert:Giovanni Bisignani
Director general and CEO, International Air Transport Association

Hyperbole characterises the debate on aviation and climate change. Do we believe the politicians, environmental activists, airlines or scientists? Is aviation a major contributor to global warming or the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions?

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that aviation is responsible for 2% of global CO2 emissions. This figure has remained largely unchanged during the past two decades, despite air traffic growth. By 2050, aviation will be responsible for 3% of global CO2 emissions with climate change impact of between 5-6%, according to the IPCC. We are, and will, remain a small part of the big problem of climate change. Nevertheless, aviation's carbon footprint is growing and that is politically unacceptable for any industry. The challenge is to retain aviation's benefits - unprecedented global mobility that supports 32 million jobs and US$3.5 billion worth of economic activity -while eliminating its negative impacts.

We must not return to the days when flying was reserved for the well to do by making it artificially expensive with even more taxes. Punitive economic measures, like emissions trading, will not have a big impact on aviation's environmental performance. With 28% of costs coming directly from fuel, the airline industry is the world's most incentivised sector in terms of keeping fuel consumption low. Positive measures such as tax credits to encourage faster re-fleeting or grants to fund alternative fuel research, would deliver better results. Unilateral European proposals to include aviation in the emissions trading scheme have put economic measures at the centre of a political debate - partially fuelled by the upcoming Kyoto deadlines. But regional initiatives are no way to solve a worldwide issue.

If emissions trading is to be imposed on airlines, we must make sure it is effective. The International Civil Aviation Organization needs to work towards a global emissions trading scheme that states could implement on a mutual consent basis. This is what the drafters of Kyoto had always envisaged.

But the industry is pushing governments for much loftier goals. In June, I suggested the industry aim for carbon neutral growth in the medium-term and develop zero-carbon emissions technology within 50 years. Since then, I have met with aircraft manufacturers, engine makers, fuel-suppliers and airlines. Nobody has all the answers, but no one said our goal was impossible. On the contrary, it is achievable.

The critical question is how do we turn the vision into reality? The first part of the answer is efficiency. It is the best way to take us to carbon neutral growth. Airlines are investing billions of dollars in new, more fuel-efficient aircraft. In the last four decades, fuel efficiency increased 70% and will improve a further 25% by 2020. Better air traffic control, including straightening air routes, and more efficient operations can reduce fuel burn by 18%.

Unfortunately, politics often gets in the way of good common sense. Uniting Europe's skies offers the biggest single opportunity to improve aviation's environmental performance. But after 15 years of talks, a Single European Sky is still just an idea. This political failure results in 12 million tonnes of unnecessary carbon emissions each year.

The second part of our vision is technology. It is the only way to zero emissions. Quite simply we need to build better planes and more efficient engines powered by non-carbon sources. Some potential building blocks already exist-solar power, hydrogen cells and biofuel.

The world's airlines are committed to the vision. Manufacturers are aligned. All are working hard. It is now time for governments to come on board. Through ICAO, governments must set challenging but realistic targets in two important areas. First, we need targets to improve air traffic management and eliminate unnecessary fuel-burn. Then we need technology targets in a roadmap. This will provide regulatory certainty to back major investment decisions from manufacturers and airlines. So, less hyperbole and more concrete actions, please.

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