Sustainable aviation taking flight

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by Emily Atkins

It’s no secret that the transportation sector is a huge emitter of the greenhouse gases that are contributing to the rapid advancement of climate change. In Canada the sector accounts for 27 percent of GHG emissions.

From cargo planes, to container ships, trains and the trucks on our roads, more than 90 percent of the fuel used is carbon-based. Not only is the extraction of petroleum products unsustainable, burning them has an even more immediate impact on our environment.

Climate change related to CO2 emissions is rapidly impacting transportation operations. The flooding in British Columbia last year that wiped out most of the road and rail transport links in the province’s Lower Mainland is just one climate-related example. In the future, ports will be at risk from rising ocean levels, while the potential for further devastating weather events just keeps escalating.

With growing awareness of the problem’s scope comes increasing pressure from regulators, investors and consumers to take action. Transport suppliers in all modes are taking heed. Some actions respond to regulatory changes and global pacts like the Paris Agreement, while others are more directly related to the cost of doing business. When customers and investors start making procurement contingent on the sustainability actions carriers are taking, the stakes are suddenly much higher.

In this four-part feature we look at a sample of sustainability initiatives in the different modes of transport to highlight some of the actions the sector is taking to improve its track record.

Decarbonizing Canadian aviation

The Canadian aviation industry has created the Canadian Council for Sustainable Aviation Fuels (C-SAF). The organization will work to speed up the deployment of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF).

Its members include 60 airlines operating in Canada along with suppliers, aerospace manufacturers, airports, finance, and academics.

Sustainable aviation fuels can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80 percent and can be used now without significant modifications to aircraft or supply infrastructure. However, SAF can cost up to eight times more than traditional jet fuel and they are not produced or imported in significant quantities into Canada.

SAF are produced from renewable feedstocks that are widely available in Canada, such as forest and agricultural residues, industrial fats, oils and grease, municipal solid wastes and CO2 captured from industrial processes or the air. In addition Canada’s low-carbon energy sources, climate policies and evolving carbon pricing help create an environment that will support SAF development.

Their use will allow for rapid results in achieving carbon neutrality in the sector. However, the aviation sector is difficult to decarbonize as electric and hydrogen technologies are in development but will not be ready for commercial use for years. The council aims to help develop public policies that will encourage the establishment of a sustainable aviation fuel value chain in the meantime.

“We want to promote and implement sound public policies to address aviation’s need for a sustainable, made-in-Canada, affordable supply of aviation fuel,” said Geoff Tauvette, executive director of the C-SAF. “I salute the vision of the industry players and thank all of our partners who will enable Canada to become a leader in the decarbonization of global aviation.”

Customer-driven initiatives

Sustainability initiatives in the air cargo sector are increasingly being driven by customer and investor expectations. According to a survey of its members, TIACA (the International Air Cargo Association) found that 65 percent say they focus on sustainability because of customer concerns, while just over half say it’s investor pressure that motivates them. An increasing number of companies say that regulatory pressure is also gaining importance in making sustainability decisions.

But in spite of growing pressure, only 37 percent of companies say they have a dedicated sustainability budget, while 73 percent claim to have a strategy in place to advance sustainability goals.

The most popular initiative mentioned in the survey responses involves reducing energy consumption, with 63 percent saying that is their main green focus. However, priorities wary widely across the different sectors within the broader air cargo community. Airlines, airports, and ground handlers are most focused on reducing fuel consumption in their own operations. Freight forwarders prioritize improving vehicle use.

Airports and carriers are also paying close attention to noise.

TIACA is urging its members to establish targets to accelerate the shift to sustainable operations and to measure their progress with regular benchmarking. The association says it’s critical that its members communicate the progress being made, gaining recognition that will attract customers with similar agendas.