The Future of Sustainable Aviation: highlights from IATA World Sustainability Symposium

In 2021, IATA member airlines committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a historic pledge aligning aviation with the Paris Agreement's goals. Fast-forward to the inaugural IATA World Sustainability Symposium (IATA WSS) in 2023, held in Madrid, where industry leaders, regulators, researchers, and various stakeholders gathered to address this great challenge.

The event spotlighted not only environmental impact and carbon footprint but also corporate social responsibility. It’s true that aviation is facing challenges such as environmental impact, personnel shortages, and staying technologically competitive. However, the general feeling is that through collaboration across the supply chain, it’s possible to tackle these issues.

A great challenge lies ahead

Airlines know it is going to be challenging and costly to tackle decarbonisation. However, nobody is denying what science has been alerting us to. The aviation industry recognises its negative impacts on the environment and is ready to implement the necessary changes to be part of the transition into a carbon-neutral world. The CEO roundtable that marked the beginning of the event underscored that aviation's key players are not only involved but also deeply committed.

Decarbonization is a globally recognized imperative.

— Filip Cornelis, Director for Aviation in the European Commission

To make this ambitious goal a reality, numerous airlines, and major industry stakeholders have developed their roadmaps, complete with secondary targets, such as a percentage emission reduction by 2030 and 2035. Nevertheless, it is essential to acknowledge that achieving the 2050 targets will be a long journey. This is not the first crisis the aviation industry is facing, but it presents a great opportunity to reinvent the travel experience for both us and the future generations.

Collaboration is key

The key word of the WSS was “collaboration”. There is a sincere will to implement changes across the industry, but everyone also recognises that this will be impossible without a true collaboration of all industry stakeholders. Therefore, there is a need for a systemic approach to these sustainability challenges.

Management decisions need to consider all factors to avoid unintended consequences. For instance, the adoption of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs) must consider its potential impact on local food production and poverty levels. Similarly, an airline's efforts to reduce plastic usage in catering services must be evaluated in the broader context of supply chain emissions.

Geographical disparities add another layer of complexity. Regulations, public awareness, climate change impact, and energy production vary significantly from region to region. These differences require tailored strategies and collaboration. A holistic approach to the problem of decarbonisation is essential, and the industry will only be able to achieve its objectives if all actors work together.

Hear it from us

For the first time, aviation industry key stakeholders got together to have essential conversations around sustainability and how to transform the industry in the coming years, and it is clear that everyone is taking this challenge very seriously. The industry has come under great scrutiny in recent years with regard to its impact on climate change. Talking to fellow participants at the WSS I could tell there is a sincere will across the industry to implement changes and take action.
Although technology and concepts such as 'digital footprint' were not top of the agenda for this first edition of the WSS, I am convinced technology partners like Branchspace also have a key role to play in the sustainable transition of the travel industry and I look forward to digging deeper into this topic in the near future based on the work and conversations started in Madrid.

Alicia Bulbeck, Operations Manager at Branchspace

Sustainable Aviation Fuels

One of the focal points of the discussions at IATA WSS revolved around Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs) and their role in the industry's journey towards sustainability. While SAFs aren't viewed as a silver bullet solution, they emerge as the most effective means to reduce airline CO2 emissions in the short to midterm, with minimal disruption to operations.

The complexity of legislation

There are still a lot of contradictory rules and numerous legal barriers across the industry, especially when it comes to intercontinental flights or international operations.

One clear example is the issue of waste management, where EU-based airlines face a complex situation. They are obliged to incinerate food waste from outside the EU, but when it comes to waste originating from EU countries, the rule takes a different shape. These regulatory disparities not only confound airlines but also expose the pressing need for international harmony in laws governing the industry.

In the pursuit of net-zero, a consistent policy framework becomes imperative. The transition to a more sustainable aviation sector cannot rely solely on voluntary commitments. It calls for an internationally coordinated effort that sets rigorous standards to ensure investments align with genuine sustainability projects.

The use of technology

In the pursuit for sustainable aviation, data analytics plays a pivotal role. Airlines worldwide are increasingly focusing on reducing their carbon emissions, and to keep track of their efforts, data-driven solutions have become indispensable. IATA has been at the forefront of developing innovative tools, such as CO2 Connect — an emissions calculator developed with airline data and based on industry approved recommended practises.

The emphasis with such tools or solutions is on transparency, accuracy and of course, API integrations, so airlines can integrate the tools into their currentiata wasaoperations. Moreover, reporting is vital. Airlines are keen to engage with their customers and the public in an open and transparent manner.

IATA is also developing a net-zero tracking methodology for airlines who want to track their net-zero progress. They are working to create industry standards for reporting and have launched an eco-hub encompassing various areas of sustainability-related services for airlines (CORSIA Centre. CO2 Connect.,Track Zero, Environmental assessments services, Q&A on SAFs etc.).

Everyone has a role to play

The 2023 IATA World Sustainability Symposium marked a historic gathering, uniting industry stakeholders to engage in crucial discussions about aviation's sustainability objectives. This milestone event not only highlighted the profound challenges facing airlines and their partners but also encouraged insightful exchanges on innovative initiatives already in progress. The diversity of attendees, ranging from airlines to environmental non-profit organizations, academics, scientists, technology partners, and aircraft manufacturers, emphasised the industry's collective commitment to achieving the ambitious net-zero emissions target by 2050.

If we were to walk away with a single word, it would be “collaboration.” This event resonated with a clear message: it is clear to everyone in the industry that this challenge needs to be tackled in coordination with other actors, and the most optimistic even dream of cross-disciplinary actions with other industries. Everyone across the supply chain has a role to play in this crisis.