Across the globe, aviation connects people like no other means of transportation. Delivery of supplies to remote communities, speedy delivery of donor organs, getting to important family events, emergency evacuation missions, and countless other both vital and less dramatically important matters that aviation handles for society in a constant and relentless fashion.
Aviation provides connectivity and mobility, access to better health care and education, and through its direct and indirect contributions to many other sectors, facilitates the development of the modern world. Like any other activity, aviation operations require a socially responsible approach – the very balance between the economy and the ecosystem we live in. Therefore, the development of aviation must be coupled with the sustainable development of the economy, environment and social sector.
Airlines, airports and air traffic control networks connect metropolitan areas and small communities, individuals and businesses, social and medical services and humanitarian missions around the clock – providing essential linkages between the most diverse parts of life and ensuring that it continues uninterrupted. More specifically, aviation is a global high-speed transportation network essential to trade, business, tourism and more, which contributes significantly to an increasingly interconnected social and economic environment around the world and is becoming a key connecting factor between people.
Aviation provides connectivity and mobility, bringing people around the world together and contributing greatly to the three cornerstones of sustainable global development – the economy, the environment, and social welfare.
Every day 128,000 flights take place, carrying 12.5 million passengers and generating $18 billion in world trade. Before Covid-19 hit the industry, nearly 87.7 million aviation and related tourism jobs were supported worldwide. According to 2019 figures, 58% of all international travelers reached their destination by air. If aviation had been a country at the time, it would have had the 17th largest economy in the world, providing $3.5 trillion in global GDP, and those numbers continued to grow until the pandemic crisis.
The dramatic decline in traffic in 2020 has changed the baseline for aviation growth until 2050: Traffic in 2050 is expected to be down 16% from pre-Covid projections. During the pandemic, about two-thirds of the world’s commercial aircraft remained parked; business and individual travelers and tourists who support many economies around the world, were stranded as governments quickly imposed travel restrictions in all parts of the globe.
The immediate effects of these measures have affected the economy and millions of lives. There have been millions of aviation jobs lost, as well as up to 46 million jobs in the rest of the economy that is supported by air transportation. It will take at least four years for air traffic volume to return to pre-Covid levels.
Connectivity, mobility, access to medicine and socio-economic development are obvious benefits of aviation, so the recovery of the sector and its continued growth are important for all countries, developed and developing alike.
However, all these benefits also come with environmental costs. The global aviation industry produces about 2.1% of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Aviation accounts for 12% of CO2 emissions from all transport sources, compared to 74% from automobile transport. Globally, people produced more than 43 billion tons of CO2 in 2019, among which aircraft produced 915 million tons of CO2 while the world’s airlines transported 4.5 billion passengers.
Other significant negative impacts of air transport on natural capital – noise in airport areas and air quality degradation in local areas – do not appear to be irreversible, nor do they constitute critical components of natural capital. Nevertheless, they are highly disruptive to local residents, therefore airlines, airports, air navigation service providers and manufacturers are working on solutions to help mitigate these harmful impacts.
While air transport carries about 1% of the world’s trade, it accounts for over 35% in value terms, meaning that items transported by air have a very high value, often perishable or time-sensitive.
For example, fresh food shipments from Africa to the UK alone support the lives of 1.5 million people, while producing less CO2 than similar products grown in the UK, despite the energy used in transport. However, it is not just about food, but about medicines and essential supplies, as well as healthcare items such as blood – plasma, thrombocytes, coagulation factors, donor organs, laboratory samples and other time-critical and valuable items. The importance of such air transportation leaves no question.
It’s equally important to note that nowadays operating aircraft are more than 80% more fuel efficient per seat kilometer than the first airplanes of the 1960s. In addition, about 80% of aviation CO2 emissions are produced by medium and long-distance flights over 1,500 kilometers, for which no alternative transportation method yet exists. But most importantly, the entire aviation sector is striving to combat climate change by investing in new technologies and infrastructure, increasing efficiency and developing environmentally friendly aviation fuels.
Therefore, it’s vital for the sustainable growth of aviation that the industry balance the benefits of air travel growth with the responsibility of acting on climate change. After evaluating indicators of the clear sky during the pandemic, it became obvious that there are ways to renew the economy and continue to connect the nations and economies around the world in the future but in a better fashion, with far less negative impact. So, today, aviation faces the challenge of significantly reducing emissions in the next decade.
Environmental progress of the industry while reducing its environmental impact is possible if its climate goals are chosen as priorities for the sector to pursue in the short, medium and long term.
Over the last decade, aviation has set a long-term plan to combat climate change. Following this year’s ATAG Waypoint 2050 report, the sector has identified several paths it can take to meet an industry-wide plan to reduce net CO2 emissions by 50 percent by 2050. The strategy includes reducing as many CO2 emissions as possible through inside sectoral solutions such as clean aviation fuels – SAF, new aviation technology, operations and infrastructure. This includes the development of zero-emission energy sources such as electricity and hydrogen power. Creating and preserving renewable sources of livelihood is just one of air transport’s key contributions to social capital, along with connecting to new markets and new partners and developing modern economies worldwide.
Air cargo also plays an important role in air transport’s sustainability challenges, from stabilization to reducing net emissions. Successful examples include refueling, SAF commitments and electrification of ramp vehicles, as well as efforts to reduce the carbon footprint in their supply chains. There are even more opportunities to improve operational efficiencies in both cargo and passenger air transport – aircraft modernization and digitalization of processes are another priority for the whole aviation industry. Read more about digitalization in the airline industry in our VOOblog here.
Restarting aviation is an opportunity to rebuild global connectivity and the economic advantages of air transport in a way that puts the industry on a path to decarbonization, gradually building global sustainable connectivity around the world. Although the climate for investment in technology and innovation may be challenging for airlines and aircraft manufacturers in the coming years, the industry remains committed to its climate action plan and is looking for ways to work with governments and other stakeholders to accelerate the opportunity to realize its contribution.
Aviation Benefits Beyond Borders – https://aviationbenefits.org
Air Transport Action Group – https://www.atag.org
International Air Transport Association – https://www.iata.org
International Civil Aviation Organization – https://www.icao.int
Ivanna is a professional journalist and communications specialist; she channels her creative energy and passion for words to shape outstanding cross-media stories for VOO and the industry’s vibrant media. Ivanna holds a master’s degree in journalism and a professional development certificate in science communication.
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