Guest Article #71

ICAO En-Route to Sustainability

International civil aviation is an essential component of our global society. For all countries, it is a driver of economic, social and cultural development. For land locked and smaller island States, it is an economic lifeline, often the only available link to the global marketplace. More specifically, it creates or supports millions of jobs, brings people together for leisure or business activities and, in many instances, ensures rapid and effective delivery of humanitarian aid where it is most urgently needed.

Air transport contributes to the world economy by $3.5 trillion per annum and represents 8% of global gross domestic product. The paralysis of the air transport system in Europe following the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano was a dramatic demonstration of the role played by air transport in our day-to-day lives.

Although air transport currently represents only 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions, traffic is expected to increase at an annual average rate of 4.5% over the next 20 years, which will put tremendous pressure on the sector to find ways to maintain and ultimately reduce its impact on climate change.

It should be highlighted that aviation's track record is sound. Air transport operations today are 70% more fuel efficient and 75% quieter than they were 40 years ago, due in part to ICAO Standards, but more needed to be done to cope with the anticipated growth. In 2010, the 190 States who are members of ICAO adopted a Resolution on aviation and climate change that made international aviation the first sector with a shared global commitment to environmental goals of increasing fuel efficiency and stabilizing its global carbon dioxide emissions in the medium term.

To realize these ambitious goals, the Resolution incorporated a basket of measures, such as more stringent Standards, market-based measures, and operational and technological improvements, such as the development of sustainable alternative fuels. States are currently preparing action plans that describe both measures they intend to adopt and any assistance they may require.

To encourage further action and in preparation for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20), ICAO organized an Aviation and Sustainable Alternative Fuels Workshop in October 2011(www.icao.int/sustaf). The workshop was attended by over 200 participants representing States, international organizations, the aviation industry, fuel producers, financial institutions and academia. It highlighted the impressive progress made in just under three years, with some 300 alternative fuels initiatives currently underway, the reality of commercial flights using biofuels, and a substantial increase around the world in the number of international consortia working on these fuels.

In his keynote address to workshop participants, Sha Zukang, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs and Secretary-General of Rio+20, emphasized that “The development of an effective and efficient transport system is essential to secure sustainable development…” He concluded by expressing the hope that “ICAO will report the outcome of the workshop and inform the Rio+20 intergovernmental process of its findings, valuable efforts and forward-looking activities.”

Significantly, the workshop recognized that alternative fuels for aviation will contribute to all three pillars of global sustainability—social, economic and environment. A few examples illustrating this: by reducing net carbon dioxide emissions, they will benefit the environment as a whole and improve local air quality through reduced particulate matter emissions; an alternative fuels industry will create a new source of employment and promote “green” air travel, thereby delivering a positive contribution to society; and alternative fuels can help to stabilize fuel price volatility, while providing a source of economic development in non-traditionally fuel producing regions of the world.

In short, alternative fuels for aviation represent a win-win-win solution en-route to a sustainable future, delivering economic and social benefits while reducing its impact on the environment. The early successes with the development of sustainable alternative fuels for aviation are a testament to just how powerful global cooperation between ICAO, governments, the aviation industry and civil society can be.