It’s been a very long time since I’ve participated in the launch of a Sustainability Report with more than 450 people in attendance! But that’s what happened on Wednesday last week with the launch of Air New Zealand’s first ever Sustainability Report in Auckland.

(Just to declare a whole bunch of interests: Air New Zealand has been a Partner of Forum for the Future for the last couple of years; I chair its Sustainability Advisory Panel, and was speaking at the launch; and I’m half a Kiwi – my dad was a New Zealander – and possibly even slightly more than half for the duration of the Rugby World Cup!)

Air New Zealand has set itself the ambition of becoming ‘one of the world’s most sustainable airlines’, and as a small airline (75th, I think, in the size rankings), a much-loved national carrier, a genuinely profitable airline (and there are mighty few of them, I can assure you!), with good growth prospects and very strong leadership, I would say it has every chance of achieving that goal – and even challenging, in due course, for the top slot.

In many respects, an airline is just like any other business – with responsibilities to employees, communities, shareholders, suppliers, business partners, regulators and so on, with a host of different environmental, social and governance issues. Excellence in all these areas doesn’t look that different to how it looks in any other company in any other sector. But then there’s the carbon!

As all the world knows, aviation contributes somewhere between 2% and 4% of global CO2 emissions, a percentage that is growing all the time as the industry grows by at least 5% per annum. Happily, emissions aren’t growing that fast, as both the engines and the planes themselves are getting more efficient all the time. (Air New Zealand, for instance, has achieved around 2.5% average efficiency improvements every year over the last few years.)

But that’s just the CO2. At high altitudes, planes emit other greenhouse gases and (in some parts of the world) cause contrails to form. The combined effect of this plus CO2 emissions (referred to as Total Radiative Forcing) is generally recognised as doubling the effect of the CO2 on its own. Which pushes that total contribution to around 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

So this is a massive challenge. Which makes it even more worrying that the industry as a whole has been dragging its feet over the last 15 years in terms of acknowledging the scale of its responsibility.
It’s now beginning to get its act together. The starting-point for this are the targets brokered by the industry’s principal trade association, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) back in 2009:

 An average improvement in fuel efficiency of 1.5% per year from 2009 to 2020.
 A cap on net aviation CO2 emissions from 202 (carbon-neutral growth).
 A reduction in net aviation CO2 emissions of 50% by 2050, relative to 2005 levels.

There’s a lot that will need to be done in terms of meeting these targets by the industry as a whole. For example, there are substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to be had from transforming air traffic control systems around the world, both in terms of optimised routing as well as take-off and landing.
Beyond that, any individual airline only has three shots in its locker to meet these targets:

1. Drive efficiency as hard as possible to ensure that more passengers and more freight can be flown with a lower greenhouse gas footprint.
2. Help develop and adopt alternative fuels – including biofuels. From both a technological and a market perspective, this is proving to be really tough, with
lots of trials, and lots of over-excited announcements, but very little by way of scaled adoption.
3. Start getting serious about offsets.

I know that won’t thrill everyone, given the current scepticism about carbon markets in general, and offsets in particular. But short of decreeing that there should be no further growth in aviation (really?!), we simply have to get used to the idea that we’ll need to pay for the carbon we cause to be emitted every time we fly – and whilst we wait and wait for governments to agree on anything approaching a universal carbon price, offsets are the best available proxy for recognising the cost of carbon.

Most airlines run a mile when confronted with these carbon realities, but they won’t be able to for very much longer. In October next year, there will be a meeting of the ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Organization – the body that acts as the principal regulator of the industry) to discuss and hopefully come to some agreement on a mandatory cap on future emissions after 2020.

All airlines should be getting ahead of this particular curve – and should be prepared to make a declaration to that effect in the run-up to the Paris Conference in a few weeks’ time. Air New Zealand has made a really good start in that regard – as 450 people warmly recognised in Auckland last week.