On October 31st the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) started in Glasgow. And the news is full of articles reminding us all, once again, the impact of all human activities on the climate and the desperate need to change. Criticism is raised against those participants who travelled to Glasgow by plane. As it happens more often this illustrates, the aviation sector is targeted as the “evil” industry.

As a passionate lover of aviation and deeply committed to sustainability, it can become demotivating. The large majority of my colleagues, not only at NLR but across the entire industry, are aware of the consequences of flying on the environment and we all work hard to reduce them. Yes, international aviation does not take a part in the Climate Agreement. However that does not mean aviation is excluded from its responsibilities as the Paris’ agreement refers to ICAO to take care of reducing the aviation’s global CO2 emissions. Next to this, it is important to note that the aviation industry started off in the early 2000s as one of the first industries to engage in improving its environmental footprint. There is still a lot to do, but reading the media I cannot deny that at times I still get surprised by such grim reputation. Why such grudge as other sectors are more polluting than aviation at this very moment?

I recently attended the 12th IFAR summit in Warsaw (Poland) and there I was part of a panel of experts discussing the future of aviation. I was asked a similar question: “What else can the aviation sector do to improve their image, given that it produces ‘only’ a small percentage of CO2 emissions?”.

According to estimates, globally the aviation sector is responsible for 2 – 3% of CO2 emissions. The global impact on climate change is considered double, when taking other factors into account ,such as NOX and the effect of contrails. After a quick scan, Google tells me that this contribution equals up to ‘fast fashion’ impact and it is estimated that contribution by the food industry is even drastically higher. It’s actually all no good. But still I hear mostly about the aviation sector, and to my opinion this is because aviation is incredibly visible. Most likely not only in my own bubble of friends, colleagues and my internet cookies ‘biasing’ internet searches.

“The aviation sector has to be truly committed and ambitious regarding its sustainability targets”

Visibility is a bliss and a curse. Visibility means that every small beautiful thing that happens gets a lot of attention, and we all love that. But also that as soon as something goes even a little bit wrong, it ends up on the front page of the newspapers. An example of that is the incredibly high standard of safety the aviation sector commits to. . It generates little attention when people die by food poisoning or by car accidents (and that happens sadly every day), but as soon as a passenger aircraft has an accident, even one with no consequences or loss of lives, a lot of people become uncomfortable flying.

So the current percentage of CO2 emissions might not be a lot in numbers, but it definitely gets scrutinized in details and triggers a gut feeling. That it is something aviation does: it can evoke strong emotions. To me also positive ones as aviation gives dreams. Aviation makes stuff flying, it connects people and cultures! As a child this made my little adventurer’s heart beat faster. Nowadays Netflix brings all that kind of stuff to me while not moving from my living room. Also video conferencing seems to work out fine, while we were all confined at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. But still, all that isn’t the same as meeting in person, is it?

The same visibility and awareness which are used against the aviation sector, can actually also be used by the aviation sector itself. For that the sector needs to bring forward a clear message. First of all the aviation sector has to be truly committed and truly ambitious regarding its sustainability target.

“The climate crisis does not care about our human petty games of interests and profits”

It is not a secret that personally I do not consider the goals that the aviation industry sets for itself as ambitious enough. I hear a lot of reasons why it cannot happen faster. As aviation expert, I accept about 20% of those, while the rest can be summarized as the fear of changing the status quo.
Second, the aviation sector needs to collaborate, more and better. To my opinion too much of the work done is hidden behind competition between companies, protected by intellectual property and patents, hidden in NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreements), and so on. The work of researchers is not the dream of collaboration preferably depicted. A degree of competition is healthy and stimulating, but at times there are too many other interests involved which bring the competition to unbalanced levels. The climate crisis does not care about our human petty games of interests and profits. Collaboration is the only way to resolve the climate crisis.

Last, the aviation sector needs to embrace the full meaning of sustainability. I love to always present to my colleagues the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) when I am talking about sustainability. On the other hand, in the sector ‘sustainable aviation’ is mostly synonymous with electric flight, hydrogen aircraft, or sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). But sustainability is more than propulsion. Sustainability is a holistic approach. Making an engine “sustainable” or emission-free, does not mean anything if the system the engine operates in is not sustainable. The aviation sector needs to rethink itself: how we fly, how much we fly, the business models behind aviation, the use of resources, etc… All those aspects need to be readdressed if aviation wants to become sustainable.

I believe that if the aviation sector could truly become sustainable, that it will send an incredibly strong message to every other industrial sector. An aviation which makes stuff flying and does it in a sustainable way; what a strong message and what a motivation to the whole world that would be.

To get the aviation sector to deliver that clear message, it requires the entire sector to embrace a deep transformation. As part of this transformation, aviation experts themselves should embrace more skills beyond the dedicated hard-core technological skills which are their strong points . That’s my strong believe and contribution to make my beloved sector more sustainable. The United Nations sum up their 17 SDGs. But I will add a personal one to it: to make the aviation sector to adhere to the full meaning of the UN SGDs. Via the NLR Living Lab and my work within the Future Sky Circular Aviation group, I will keep on enabling my colleagues at NLR and in Europe to accomplish that additional goal. My plea before it will be too late.

About the author

Ligeia Paletti works at Royal NLR’s Aerospace Vehicles Division. She is a passionate aeronautical engineer, who now explores how to make the aviation sector more innovative (and sustainable) by managing the NLR Living Lab. Ligeia is deeply committed to making aviation more sustainable, with the dream of making circular aircraft fly.  Researching Circular Economy in the aviation sector is a great start to achieve that! Check NLR Circular Economy capabilities. Questions? Please feel free to contact Ligeia by email at Ligeia.Paletti@nlr.nl.