Human history has been marked by societal and demographic shifts often taking place over century-long timeframes. However, the changes taking place now will occur in mere decades, as the pace of technological development speeds up and whole economies and regions respond to new opportunities and challenges. Connectivity and mobility are both drivers and responders to these trends. It is important, therefore, to look at how the world will change in the coming years.

It is estimated that the world’s population, now around 7.6 billion, will grow to 9.8 billion by 2050. The urban / rural split is more evident than ever before. Over half the world’s population now lives in cities, with that proportion due to grow to 66% by 2050. This brings with it challenges and opportunities – more concentrated populations allow for improved efficiency of mobility and energy supply. However, it also means that these cities will need to be careful about the quality of life they can provide their citizens. It could also create inequality of public transport access for rural populations.

The world’s economic centre of gravity continues to shift eastward and south as the powerhouses of Asia build global strength and emerging economies in Latin America and Africa gain from trade and development. Interestingly, the centre of gravity of global air traffic closely mirrors the broader economic trends.

Rising middle classes in Asian nations, in particular, will seek to travel more and benefit from the connectivity that air travel brings. Already, Asia-Pacific has overtaken North America and Europe to become the largest aviation market in the world. Consumers there will continue to seek new opportunities and take advantage of their increasing ability to travel. Africa and Latin America, too, are rapidly developing and many people across Africa will be able to make leaps forward in technology to provide improved mobility, if governments prepare the groundwork in an expedited fashion.

Within nations as well, attitudes are shifting. The famous millennial generation expects to travel more often and more easily, whilst also prioritising environmental and social awareness – a characteristic defining both the passengers and employees of air transport operators and businesses everywhere.

An industry so proudly technologically-advanced as aviation will also be subject to changing dynamics. Increasing artificial intelligence and disruptive technology such as remotely automated systems – drones – becoming part of the landscape (or, more accurately, airspace), our industry will also need to adapt quickly.

Despite the changing fortunes of many around the world, there remain challenges to development: pulling millions more out of poverty; providing clean habitats; fostering innovation; building stable societies; taking care of an aging population with increased life expectancy; dealing with climate change; and with the advent of more automation, finding different ways for entire segments of society to spend their days.

The Sustainable Development Goals

To help navigate these changing times and ensure that parts of society are not left behind by the pace of development, in 2015, the world’s governments, through the United Nations, agreed on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This Agenda is framed by 17 overarching Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to set priorities and stimulate action over the next fifteen years in areas of critical importance for humanity and the world: people, planet, prosperity and peace.

These are not simply goals for the United Nations system to follow, but a framework for aligned action across all parts of society and the global community. Business, in particular, has a big influence on how many of the goals can be realised, but also will benefit once they are achieved. Business thrives in stable societies with healthy and prosperous citizens, open borders and strong institutions. At the same time, there is an obligation on all companies and industrial sectors to consider not just profit maximisation in business strategy – indeed, for stable and sustainable growth, the SDGs provide an ideal template of the important elements for corporate strategy as well.

The goals define 169 targets that governments are encouraged to pursue and a set of ‘indicators’ which allow for the tracking of progress towards those targets and the overall goals.

Transport’s role in sustainable development

Without fast and efficient mobility, the world we know today would not exist. Transport-enabled trade and modern connectivity has a fundamental role to play in modern lives, in business and beyond. Transport is a key component of meeting the SDGs. Whilst there is no stand-alone SDG on mobility, former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged the catalytic power of the sector and formed a High Level Advisory Group on Sustainable Transport to look at how transport could help deliver the SDGs. The group developed a set of ten recommendations to promote wider access to safe and efficient mobility:

  1. Make transport planning, policy and investment decisions based on the three sustainable development dimensions – social development, environmental (including climate) impacts and economic growth – and a full life cycle analysis.
  2. Integrate all sustainable transport planning efforts with an appropriately-balanced development of transport modes: integration vertically among levels of government and horizontally across modes, territories and sectors.
  3. Create supportive institutional, legal and regulatory government frameworks to promote effective sustainable transport.
  4. Build technical capacity of transport planners and implementers, especially in developing countries, through partnerships with international organisations, multilateral development banks, and governments at all levels, to ensure equitable access to markets, jobs, education and other necessities.
  5. Reinforce efforts toward preventing road traffic deaths and injuries.
  6. Foster an informed, engaged public as a crucial partner in advancing sustainable transport solutions.
  7. Establish monitoring and evaluation frameworks for sustainable transport, and build capacity for gathering and analysing sound and reliable data and statistics.
  8. Promote diversified funding sources and coherent fiscal frameworks to advance sustainable transport systems, initiatives and projects.
  9. Increase international development funding and climate funding for sustainable transport.
  10. Promote sustainable transport technologies through outcome-oriented government investment and policies that encourage private sector investment and action through various incentive structures.

These recommendations fed into the 2016 Global Sustainable Transport Conference in Ashgabat and then into a cross-UN effort that is now being formed, Sustainable Mobility for All (SuM4All). This initiative brings together UN agencies, multilateral development banks, NGOs, academics and industry to chart a way forward for mobility that follows a vision of:

  • Universal access – to ensure social equity in access to opportunities;
  • Efficiency – to increase the efficiency of transport systems and services;
  • Safety – to improve the safety of mobility (SDG target 3.6 on road safety);
  • Green – shifting transport services and infrastructure to a green, clean and resilient path.

Aviation’s unique perspective

Much of the discussion on mobility is focused on ground transport for understandable organisational reasons. Urban mobility – road infrastructure, rail systems, cycling infrastructure and bus networks – are all very heavily reliant on government intervention and coordinated policy, whereas aviation in many cases is self-sufficient. In many developing nations, however, there may need to be some policy intervention to ensure infrastructure development for wider access to air services.

The global aviation industry is aligned with the aims of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Analysis shows that the global air transport industry plays at least some role in supporting 15 out of the 17 SDGs. Through generating connectivity between nations, aviation is a key driver of economic and social development. Aviation also has one of the most clear and wide ranging climate action plans of any global industry, which contributes to the environmentally-focused SDGs.

Whilst aviation already plays a major role in supporting and complementing the SDGs, simply as a matter of its day to day operations, there are areas in which the industry could increase its contribution to sustainable development. By working in partnership with governments and inter-governmental institutions, air transport could significantly further its already important role in driving sustainable development. Over half of all international tourists travel to their destination by air and tourism plays an even more important role in some States than in others, with 45 out of 47 least developed countries identifying tourism as a key development sector.

Supporting States in special situations

Of particular interest to the global community is assisting the development of countries in so-called ‘special situations’. These States have been identified as needing assistance due to geographic or climatic conditions and were identified in several special processes including the Istanbul Programme of Action for the Least Developed Countries, the Vienna Programme of Action for Landlocked Developing Countries, and the Samoa Pathway for Small Island Developing States.

To help communicate the benefit of improved connectivity through aviation development, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has teamed up with the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) and several UN agencies in the Aviation Partnerships for Sustainable Development initiative.

Partnership for sustainable development

The SDGs are not going to be achieved without collaborative efforts by governments, with businesses and civil society all working together. Luckily, aviation is very experienced in working in partnership to set and achieve system-wide goals. In safety and security, and most recently climate change, air transport at a global level has followed the day-to-day operational philosophy of working together for the benefit of all, including with a well-connected network of suppliers. When it comes to meeting the SDGs, we will need to also work with governments and other partners to ensure the greatest benefits. Our most enduring global partnership is with ICAO, a specialised United Nations agency with a unique role: to help set global standards for this most global of industries. ICAO has also undertaken analysis of how its organisational strategy supports the SDGs.

Aviation is vital for the broader tourism industry as well, with the sector contributing heavily to world economic development. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation estimates that the sector accounts for 1 in every 11 jobs and 30% of global services export income. The United Nations General Assembly earmarked 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, a recognition of the cross-cutting nature of tourism and the need for sustainable growth in what will be an even more important industry in the future. The International Year is being structured into five key themes which also encompass the SDGs:

Driving sustainability through economic growth

A number of the SDGs, including SDG 1 (no poverty), SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth) and SDG 10 (reduced inequalities) have a focus on economic development and are in many ways interconnected. These are areas in which aviation already makes a significant contribution, but increased cooperation with governments can unlock further economic potential and support sustainable development. In some regions of the world, unnecessary and burdensome regulations remain in place, hurting competitiveness and suppressing the consequential social benefits of better air links.

In Africa, governments could support the sustainable development of the sector by agreeing to a policy of open skies, which would not only aid economic development, but would greatly increase airspace efficiency and safety. Rather than continuing an arrangement of individual bilateral agreements between each state, African governments should agree on a more liberal approach to the continental airspace through adoption of the Yamoussoukro Decision, a policy that has long been on the negotiating table and that has the full support of the industry.

In Latin America, the main barrier to economic sustainability is the lack of appropriate infrastructure, which in turn suppresses capacity and connectivity. As much of the infrastructure in this region is state-owned, there is significant scope for industry to collaborate with governments in the region to develop the infrastructure needed to meet future demand in a sustainable manner.

Around the world, the wider tourism sector can also create opportunities for people in remote areas and for indigenous communities and play a role in actually protecting the natural habitats and animals that bring visitors. Such development must be carefully managed to safeguard cultural and natural attractions whilst also providing value and growth prospects for all participants. Challenges remain: overcrowding of historic and cultural sites, resource allocation, education and development for local populations, equitable sharing of financial benefits, and working conditions are all areas that thoughtful action is needed. However, well-planned and executed tourism can provide a much more sustainable future than many traditional primary and industrial sectors.

Sustainability reporting and regulation

Increasingly, States and investors are asking businesses to report on sustainability actions and areas quite outside the normal day-to-day operations of most aviation partners. From legislation requiring reporting on actions to combat human trafficking, to regulations on disclosure on all aspects of CSR, reporting requirements are already becoming more granular. For an aircraft operator doing business in multiple jurisdictions worldwide, compliance with each State’s individual system can be burdensome. Investors, too, are starting to seek detailed disclosure from many listed companies of the climate change risks to their businesses.

A proactive approach in these areas is encouraged as these requirements are only likely to increase over time. This can be through individual initiative or via a body such as the UN Global Compact, Global Reporting Initiative, or Task Force on Climate Related Financial Disclosures.

Using this report

This report is a snapshot of how aviation currently supports the sustainable development of societies through the prism of the SDGs. For each of the 15 SDGs we have a global role in supporting, we have identified some of the sub-targets and indicators that could be useful for air transport input.

A small selection of actions already underway by the aviation sector is expanded on the website

We have also identified some ideas of how individual aviation organisations can play their unique role and where governments can help boost sustainable air transport.

Aviation’s role is different across the SDGs. In some of them, the SDG is fully relevant to our sector. In others, we have broad influence, or the SDG is relevant to the actions of the aviation sector. The remaining few we have limited direct involvement, but can provide a support function to other sectors or actions. In two of the SDGs, the industry does not always have a direct aviation element, however some aviation partners may find them particularly relevant (because of their local situations, or the destinations they serve) and so we have included those examples in this report.

This report should be seen as a guide to how aviation partners can use the SDGs as a framework for their own sustainability planning, but it is just a guide. Airports, airlines, air navigation service providers, manufacturers and the many thousands of other partners throughout the supply chain must look at their own unique circumstances and assess how they can best serve the future of the industry, their workforce, their customers, their communities and the planet.