Sustainability in Aviation
for Businesses and Travellers
Episode #26 of NAVIGATE discusses sustainability in aviation.
0:00:03 – 0:00:27
|Hello, my name is Frank Harrison. I’m the regional security director – Americas with World Travel Protection. Join me as I talk with Dr. Alejandro Block. He is a respected senior policy adviser regarding sustainability in aviation. Welcome to NAVIGATE. Dr. Alejandro Bullock, could you introduce yourself first and explain to our listeners how you entered the field of aviation sustainability?|
Dr Alejandro Block
0:00:27 – 0:01:20
|Hi, Frank. Yeah, thank you for the invitation and hello to the audience. So I’m a mechanical engineer by trade. And I have specialized in aviation and environment. I’ve got a PhD from Cranfield University on aviation emissions. And the following that I’ve been working with many organizations going from aircraft manufacturers – or not working for them, but working with them. AirBus, Rolls Royce, GE, Boeing – all the major ones. Also working with the governments through the United Nations specialized agency in aviation, ICAO, and with airlines, so really working with the whole aviation network. I’m also a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society and research fellow at Cranfield University. So, at the moment, I am working for IATA International Air Transport Association as new energies and technologies manager.|
0:01:20 – 0:01:44
|So very, very solid credentials on this subject. So Dr. Block, I’ll ask you a question from an IATA perspective, your personal perspective. When we look at the United States, as an example, the Environmental Protection Agency has come out and stated that greenhouse gases are one of the largest polluters. Can you speak to that subject before we go into the details of what sustainability is.|
Dr Alejandro Block
0:01:44 – 0:03:01
|Yeah, I mean, greenhouse gases are the major polluters from all the different sectors. And then you can divide those emissions in which are the sectors that emit the most, right, so you’ve got, for example, energy production, that’s one of the bigger ones. This is the emissions emitted through generating electricity, mainly through burning coal or burning natural gas. So when you burn these substances, you produce co2, and you burn them to run a heat engine or gas turbine that runs a generator that makes electricity. So that’s one of the biggest sources of pollution. So at the moment doing this, what we’re doing right now, using computers, turning the lights on, using servers – that produces co2. Then you also have a big chunk of transportation. And within transportation, road transportation is the biggest one. And that is followed by other means of transportation, aviation, and maritime transportation are about 2% each of the of the total. So they are comparatively to other sectors, they are a minor source of emissions. So compared to road transport, that’s about 15, I think percent from memory, but still a significant amount of of emissions, right? So ideation is it’s about 2%, that is still about 900 million tons of co2 per year, right? So it’s not negligible.|
0:03:02 – 0:03:24
|Okay, Dr. Block, thank you for setting the scene on that. So if we look at the ecosystem of greenhouse gases, you’ve painted a really good picture on where aviation fits in that. So if we take a step out – we hear the term net zero all the time. Can you speak to what Net Zero is and what it would mean to the aviation industry? And how aviation will adapt to it?|
Dr Alejandro Block
0:03:24 – 0:09:02
I think it’s a very relevant and very important question. And it’s a definition that sounds very simple, but it’s actually a little bit more complex, right? Because often when we hear net zero, what people think about this 000, like nothing, nothing comes out, right. So if I unplug my house from the grid, and I connect it to solar panels and the light that I will be emitting in my house, you know, the light that I will be using, and electricity will be zero emissions. There’s nothing, no no smoke coming out of anywhere in that process, right.
Net Zero doesn’t mean that. Net zero means that whatever we put out in the atmosphere, we compensate somehow, or we remove, right. So if I have a glass of water, and I fill it with water, and then I empty that water, then the net content in that glass is zero. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t fill the glass with water to start with, right. So it’s important to set the scene between net zero and true zero. True zero is no emissions come out at all. Net Zero is the emissions that come out, get removed somehow.
So aviation has committed to the second one – to net zero. But reaching this net zero is a combination of many different things, right? So it is a combination of one is reducing the amount of co2 that we emit. That is one of the things right so for example, we do that by bringing in new aircraft that are more efficient, because they are more efficient. They use less energy in flight, so less energy to complete a mission. Where does that energy come from? It comes from the fuel so you use less fuel so you emit less co2 emission. Right? So that’s one of the things.
Now, I said reducing the emissions. So clearly, this is not eliminating, right. So if I had an airplane that emitted two tons of carbon to fly a given mission, I can replace it by another one that emits, let’s say, 1.5 tonnes of carbon. I making these numbers up, obviously. So that means that there is still 1.5 tonnes emitted, right? So I’m not, I’m not removing it. So what other things can we do so we can replace airplanes, we can also fly them in routes that are more efficient. So fly them in a straight line, instead of diverting to avoid, for example, a zone of very expensive charges, or, when I’m about to land at the airport, instead of circling back at the airport and being put in a holding pattern, I can just directly reach the airport and land so you know, more efficient operations. So this is using our existing infrastructure or efficient or existing aircraft by using them in a more efficient way. So that also reduces, but there is still a big chunk of emissions that will be emitted in this way, right? So this is not going to take us to zero or net zero.
So what can we do about this residual emissions, there are a number of things we can do. One of the things is we can offset right so we can say, Okay, if I flew a certain mission, and I emitted two tons of carbon dioxide, I can purchase credible offsets and credible is an important word. Actually, the United Nations through ICAO has certified scheme of critical offsets for aviation, and these are certified by the UN body, right, so it’s quite solid. And you can say, Okay, I will buy a given project, I will invest in a project that will absolutely insure me that these two tonnes of carbon will be removed from the atmosphere by other means.
But then the simple example. I mean, it’s a bit controversial for some reasons. But a simple example is to say okay, I’m going to plant trees, that will ensure me that I will remove this carbon from the atmosphere so we can offset. Another thing we can do, and I’m extending myself a little bit, but just to close this is I can actually put a fuel on the airplane that didn’t come from fossil origin, it didn’t come from crude oil. And rather it came from biomass, right, so so for, if I have a bare piece of land, a land that is not used for anything else. It’s a bare piece of land, I could plant there are certain plants that will absorb co2 from the atmosphere as plants do. And they will produce an oil right, so the plant absorbs the co2, it produces an oil, and then I can refine that oil and convert it into jet fuel. In that way, when I burn that jet fuel, and I emit co2, that co2 that I’m putting in the atmosphere is exactly the same co2 that I absorbed with the plant beforehand. Right now, in the process of transforming that plant into jet fuel. There are emissions that are produced, so it’s not fully circular. But it’s pretty close to carbon circularity, right.
So there are many different ways and a little bit more into the future, looking at the more innovative ways, we can actually replace jet fuel with fuels that will contain absolutely no carbon at all, such as the case of for example, batteries, you can have an electric aircraft with batteries, though this is only really applicable for very, very small aircraft, very short range. And for aircraft that are a little bit bigger, we are exploring at the moment the use of hydrogen, so we can produce hydrogen with renewable energy, through water, it can be seawater, and that becomes a very powerful energy carrier that we can put into an engine, it can be an aircraft, it can be a car, it can be anything, we can extract energy from there to fly, right and and that is a circle that has no carbon in it at all. So a combination of all of these measures, alternative fuels, biofuels, hydrogen, new aircraft, better operations, and critical carbon offsets, or carbon capture are the main levers of faction that aviation is using to meet net zero by 2050.
0:09:03 – 0:09:51
|That’s a really good description Dr. Block. We’ve got a lot of listeners that will be listening in because there’s a concern of how travel is going to be impacted. And what you’ve done is you’ve brought clarity on what Net Zero is versus true zero. And the circularity that when we look at how ESG is are being developed and sustainability, with the impetus to move to a circular economy, it’s good to hear that it also applies to the travel aviation space. So for those that are listening in now, let’s drill it down into from a business perspective, what this will mean to the individual traveller. Can you share your insights into how this will impact individual travellers and what individual travellers can do to actually support sustainability in aviation?|
Dr Alejandro Block
0:09:51 – 0:13:53
Yeah, sure. So the first thing that this will impact is obviously a flight that is, as they say, guilt free right. So As we achieved this objective of flying with net zero emissions, which we are quite far from achieving at the moment, I must say, there’s still a lot of work to do but once this is achieved, then you can be sure that when you’re flying, then your net – well, at least at least a large part of your environmental impact – is going to be covered, right. So that reduces your environmental impact considerably.
And I want to take the most extreme case for this, of flying on a hydrogen airplane, for example, or on an electric airplane that actually emits that is true zero emissions, right. So not not net zero, we’re not compensating anything, we’re actually not emitting any co2 into the atmosphere.
Now, the prospect of flying on a zero emission aircraft is actually very interesting, because that could make aviation actually the most sustainable way of transportation on Earth. Right? And why am I saying that, because if you think about flying from, I don’t know, Montreal to Toronto, for argument’s sake, you know, if you’re going to do that, in a car, in a private vehicle, you need a road, you need a carrier, to be able to build a road, you need to cut a lot of trees, you need a lot of concrete, you need a lot of steel, you produce a lot of emissions in making and maintaining roads. And the same goes for rail, right. And then the operative emissions of the transport you account on top of that, with aviation, you need to runways and nothing in the middle, right. So aviation actually provides a very interesting prospect of transporting people fast, safe and sustainably.
Now where evasion loses is on the operation emissions of the vehicle. The vehicles that we transport, so the the aircraft produce a lot more co2 than other means of transportation, because they go much faster, that is a reason right? So if you manage to get rid of those emissions, then the overall lifecycle emission of that transport system becomes very, very interesting.
So the first thing that this will impact passengers is we will be exposed to a way of transport that is, or could be one of the most sustainable ways of transport on the planet. And that is very exciting right? Now, the other implication, of course, is the cost, the how it is going to impact the cost of flying. Well, inevitably there is going to be a cost associated to this. If this was free or cheap, it would have been done already. Right? It’s going to be very expensive. Developing a new airplane is very expensive. Developing infrastructure, airports, all the safety requirements are expensive. The fuels are going to be expensive, right? So all these fuels that I spoke about hydrogen and biofuels, they are more expensive than kerosene. So no doubt, we will see an increase. How large is this increase going to be? I don’t know. But it is going to be. I mean, it’s not going to double the airfare of flight. There are many studies out there that you can see. But there will be a slight increase.
However, it’s very important to understand that if we don’t do anything, that doesn’t mean that air fares are not going to rise anyway. So we will see an increase in air travel, most likely in any case, because if we don’t do anything, and if we don’t aim to reach net zero, and if we just keep operating the way we do, what is going to happen is we’re going to have more taxation, more environmental charges, the cost of fuel is going to go up, the cost of polluting is going to go up. So anyways, we will be impacted by a cost. And this is without even accounting for the cost of climate change, which is considerable right. And we are seeing it now. Before we started the podcast, we briefly spoke about the snowstorms in North America. And there were 10s of 1000s of flights cancelled because of that, and it happens during winter. It happens in summer as well. Flooding, heatwaves. So continuing contributing to climate change is absolutely an affordable and that is going to have a bigger impact. So, so yes, reaching net zero will be costly, it will impact efforts, but not doing so would be much worse.
0:13:52 – 0:14:38
|That’s a really good statement. And I’m gonna give a free plug to Harbour Air in Vancouver, Canada. They retrofitted a number of their older Beaver and Otter aircraft to electric. And they’ve been doing the run from Vancouver to Victoria and Nanaimo using electric powered aircraft, so it is achievable. It’s just going to be interesting to see how the aviation industry expands and grows as technology in the future, whether it is with biofuels or replacement fuels, or into the electric space. So talk about guilt free. When we look at businesses and organisations, how can they take that approach to guilt free and actually reduce their carbon footprints as businesses?|
Dr Alejandro Block
0:14:39 – 0:18:04
Yeah, well, I mean, I use that term although I must admit I don’t like it because it’s not about cleaning your guilt. It’s about stopping all negative impact on the environment because that has a negative impact on our economy and everything. So it’s actually a much bigger than that. So I know that I use that term but I will criticize myself for using it.
I think that the first thing that has to be done is a really honest recognition of what the impact is and what we need to do to reduce it, right. So this is not about greenwashing, it’s not about saying that we’re doing something without doing anything, or you know, doing a little bit but continuing to work as business as usual. But then making a lot of noise about what we’re doing is actually very truthful, unscientific recognition of what the impact that true operations have is. I think that sounds very, very silly, but I think it’s very important.
And then normally, when you do a plan to net zero, this is for aviation or for any other businesses, then you have a bunch of layers that you have to tackle first, right? So first is you need to do accounting, and then you need to know what is your actual impact? How can you reduce your emissions, if you don’t know how much you emit? Like you yourself? Frank, if I ask you, what are your personnel emissions on a year? Maybe you’re gonna know. I don’t know mine, right. So first of all, is to know what what your emissions are, what are the bigger sources of your emissions, and then start making a plan of how to reduce those.
So the first thing you do is you account. The second thing is you try to reduce as much as you can. So you, as I said, in aviation, you replace your airplane to fly more efficiently, you reduce the weight, you incentivise passengers to have a positive behaviour, right. So reduce the amount of things you will carry on board, every kilogram of mass you carry on board will produce co2, because it’s extra weight on the airplane, right? So so you try to reduce everything you can do by sustainable fuels, you do this, you do that.
And then inevitably, there’s going to be a chunk of emissions that you cannot get rid of, no matter what you do. And those chunks of emissions, you can compensate, right. And when you do that, then you need to be very sure that you’re doing it with very credible carbon compensation schemes. I must say, carbon offsets have received a lot of criticism over the years, and rightly so because there have been many schemes that are a scam or that don’t work or that don’t ensure that the carbon is removed. That is true. But there are also a lot of schemes that actually do guarantee that that carbon is removed. And there’s a lot of good stuff out there that is happening. Right.
So it’s a matter of getting certified offsets to try to reduce that. So I think those are the main high level general steps now. Now, the other thing is, of course, there has to be a change in in your habits, right? So we cannot just keep operating the way we are, and coping for technology to fix it all the it’s not going to happen, right? So for example, if I’m walking to the street on the road, maybe I can walk instead of driving there, if it’s only a 10 minute walk, you know, that is also something that is helped me. And the same applies to everything else that that we do, right? So if I’m going to just fly over for a one hour meeting, okay, maybe I can take that online, you know, so that there is going to be and we are seeing that already. Right? So there is a big, a big amount of things. And I’m not saying we should stop flying, I work for the aviation sector, I think we we need to fix the problem and keep on flying and keep on growing. But I do think that we need to be responsible on the way we operate not not only for travelling, but for the way we live our lives in general. Right. Yeah.
0:18:05 – 0:19:27
That’s a really good comment. Dr. Alejandro, is changing habits. When the pandemic started, most organisations escalated travel approvals and travel management to the C suite level. And that helps organisations to better understand from the business continuity and resiliency standpoint, what they were doing. Now that we see the pandemic curtailing out or changing, a lot of businesses have reverted back to how they were doing business pre pandemic.
So when we look at sustainability and the ESGs, this is a great opportunity to take that step where organisations are already looking at their carbon impacts and their efforts are doing as a business. Whether their supply chain manufacturer’s transnationals or local, their impact on the environment, I would suggest a lot of organisations are not looking at travel as part of that wider solution. Then you’ve pointed out rightly that organisations need to do that. It’s a matter of changing our habits, whether it’s looking at it from a carbon perspective, travel budgets, it’s understanding how aviation to travel risk are part of a wider conversation around sustainability. And it needs to be reinforced and you made a really strong comment about the difference between greenwashing versus real sustainability efforts. Would you like to expand on that just a little bit more.
Dr Alejandro Block
0:19:27 – 0:22:55
Just before I go to that comment what you said during the peak of the COVID pandemic, then the first year of the pandemic mobility stopped, you know, we were working from home, the air travel decreased up to 80% at its peak, right. And the same for road transport. The reduction in emissions in the whole world compared to what it would have been without COVID was about 6% right only 6%. This 6% is the same reduction in emissions we need to achieve year on year to be able to reach net zero by 2050. Right.
And this to me It’s very striking, why? Because you see, okay, the whole world stopped, we stopped flying, we stopped driving, we did everything. And we only reduced 6%. Why? Because most of the bigger sources of emissions continued energy generation agriculture, right? All of these things just kept going. So this is why I also think is very important that we really need to understand we need to make a very radical structural change to our energy system. Right. So we need to clean the grids, we need to clean the fuel system, we need to clean all of these things. Because otherwise just stopping flying and stop driving, it’s not going to be enough as an economy wide. Right. So I just wanted to stress on that on that point.
Now, going back to your, to your point about greenwashing versus real action? Yeah. Well, I think a lot of people have studied this. And there are on the internet, some rules of you know, how do you identify greenwashing versus real action? Right, and there are a few things. So I can’t remember all of them. But one of them is, for example, we shouldn’t be making claims of something we haven’t achieved yet, right?
So for example, we committed as a sector to net zero, but we are not Net Zero yet. So we cannot be sort of claiming and saying, Oh, we’re committed to net zero, it’s all fine. No, it’s not fine. It’s going to be all fine when we reach net zero, right?
Another thing is we shouldn’t be sort of selling solutions, or talking about solutions without offering the drawbacks, or the compromises of those solutions, right? So for example, let’s take, okay, I’m going to buy an electric car. And then okay, I have an electric car, it’s all fine. Well, no, how is that energy being produced? Is that energy being produced by burning fossil fuels? Am I making the problem worse? Am I making no, no sense at all? So so so it’s important to get both sides of the story, right? So here’s, we’re gonna do this. But there are these drawbacks as well. Are there are these compromises? Are there are these right, so that’s another important thing to point out, too.
So there are many different indicators. And I think it’s very important that we’re aware because greenwashing is not only unethical, and it’s not only something that, you know, it’s people or companies lying, but it’s very dangerous. And there’s a way it’s very dangerous is because we have a real problem that we need to solve – the problem of climate change. And if I go, and I claim that I’m doing things that I’m not doing, or that I have achieved, things that I haven’t achieved, then that gives you a false sense of security, right? And then the pressure goes away. So I’m, I’m coming and I’m saying, oh, yeah, don’t worry, I’ve done this, I have a plan, it is so fine, you know. And then suddenly, we have this sense of okay, then it’s okay. It’s fine, you know, and then the pressure disappears. But the problem persists. And it’s actually becoming worse. Right. So this is, this is the very dangerous thing of greenwashing.
I think this is one of the reasons why some governments are actually moving towards penalising this right. So so now, in many places, companies can actually get fined and penalised for greenwashing. And I think that is a good thing because of the dangers that we’re actually facing. Right?
0:22:55 – 0:24:21
That’s a really strong comment about penalising, and you’ve made a really strong case and painted a really clear picture on what achieving net zero is. And the reason I am locking in on this term penalizing is, over the past year, there’s been a lot of different initiatives, just to reflect on your words, on how to do carbon offsetting and how to do carbon credit buying. And it falls well within the greenwashing space. It’s my opinion that it’s going to take that regulatory change globally by governments to make it a requirement to conform to net zero, versus the voluntary approach that we’ve seen over the past number of years. Because as you’ve rightly pointed out, if it’s voluntary, people will speak to it, but they won’t achieve it.
Dr. Block in this short period of time, you’ve provided a lot of clarity on an issue that’s probably keeping a lot of travel managers and travel approvers awake at night, and a lot of businesses fearful of what travel in the future is going to be. Thank you for confirming that travel is very important to many of us, especially in the business sector, and the academic space and that you are part of the solutions and keeping aviation aloft and ultimately, providing solutions that nobody else is looking at doing. And achieving zero and sustainability aviation. I applaud you.
Dr Alejandro Block
0:24:21 – 0:25:03
Thank you, Frank. Yeah, I mean, I think just stressing out what you said, I think air travel is is a necessity, is a driver for good, is a driver for progress, for culture, for communications for so many things.
We cannot afford to have a world that is not connected by by air. It’s the most fast and the most safe means of transportation.
And I can assure you, there are 1000s of people working today on making that sector also one of the most sustainable sectors and people that really care and people that are really putting their hearts into it. So I think it’s kudos to all of those colleagues. And yeah, hopefully we will can report in 30 years time to say that we’ve achieved it.
0:25:03 – 0:25:14
|Well, we are looking at Net Zero 2050 as the final goal and I fully support – and many of us in this business support – you in achieving that.|
Dr Alejandro Block
0:25:14 – 0:25:16
|Thank you Frank, and thanks for the invitation.|
0:25:17 – 0:26:00
Thank you for joining us as we spoke to Dr. Alejandro Block. This episode focused on sustainability in aviation and how the future of aviation travel may transform.
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Till next time. I am Frank Harrison.
In the first episode of 2023, we discuss a topic high on this year’s agenda: sustainability in aviation. We’re joined by Dr Alejandro Block, an aviation decarbonisation expert who has worked with major aircraft manufacturers such as AirBoss, Rolls Royce, GE and Boeing.
Dr Block’s interview covers what Net Zero means to the aviation industry, sustainable aviation fuel, reducing carbon footprint, and the difference between greenwashing vs real sustainability efforts.
Listen to the full episode to learn why Dr Block believes aviation could become the most sustainable way of transportation on Earth.
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