Speech: Michael Gill, ATAG Opening


Geneva - The Executive Director of the Air Transport Action Group, Michael Gill, has delivered a speech at the Global Sustainable Aviation Summit 2015, where he launched the publication of the Aviation Climate Solutions.

I am sure some of you have been wondering why there is a bicycle on stage.

It’s OK, you have not walked into the wrong conference on sustainable transport. Biking and aviation actually go a long way back – the Wright brothers owned a bicycle shop in Michigan before turning their attention to aerial feats.

But, the bicycle is not here because of that either.

In 2007, ahead of the Beijing Olympics, the British Cycling team started to try a new approach to their training and performance programme. Instead of simply looking for the big steps that would help them gain an edge over their competitors – such as bikes made from new materials – they decided to focus on what they called the aggregation of marginal gains. The incremental elements that would make their team more competitive.

So, nothing was left to chance. Everything was looked at. From the food that the team is given, to the shoes they wear and, believe it or not, even the position in which they sleep and how they wash their hands. Cyclists spent hours in wind tunnels, perfecting the ultimate way of sitting on their bike. Every tiny potential gain was explored, tested, perfected and deployed. Their opponents at cycling’s main events, the Olympics and the Tour de France all wondered if the Brits had finally lost their minds.

And then… they started winning.

Aggregation of marginal gains as a philosophy has now spread to other sports and is entering the business environment. We don’t call it that, but in aviation we’ve been doing it for a while too. And it really came to mind as I was reviewing a report which the Air Transport Action Group is releasing here today.

In this room in 2008, ATAG brought together the Chief Executives and Directors General of organisations representing the aviation industry to do what no other transport sector had done before – set goals for cutting CO2 emissions.

The targets are well known, of course. A short-term efficiency goal, a mid-term cap on net emissions and an ambitious long-term goal to halve CO2 from aviation by 2050. We brought these leaders together around those commitments and it sent a strong message throughout the industry. We needed to work together, we needed to look at every opportunity and we needed to do this for the sake of not only our global climate but also for very good business reasons.

And it is a testament to the vision and courage of those leaders and in particular my predecessors Philippe Rochat and Paul Steele that we are here today, still united as an industry behind that collective ambition.

The report we are launching today is called Aviation Climate Solutions. It is a compendium of 100 projects taking place across the sector to cut CO2 emissions from our operations. Copies will be available outside the room as you leave for the coffee break. Like the British Cycling team, it identifies not only the large step-change improvements that come when we launch a new aircraft or engine type … it also showcases the smaller, incremental gains. But they are all important. They will all be needed to ensure we meet our targets.

These are our ‘marginal gains’.

Tellingly, these hundred case studies cover initiatives involving over 400 partners in the aviation industry and outside the sector. Each one of these projects highlights another philosophy that made British Cycling a winning team: collaboration, coordination, cooperation… teamwork. It’s something that we are used to in aviation where we have 100,000 flights a day, making their way safely across the skies. That philosophy is alive and well in our response to the climate challenge too.

So, we all know about the goals. And we had some impressive high-level support from the start. How are we doing on meeting them?

Actually, pretty well so far.


Goal one: efficiency

The first goal was to improve fleet-wide fuel efficiency by an average of 1.5% per year from 2009 to 2020. Currently, we are tracking at an outstanding 2.9% average improvement per year. This has come about from new technology entering the fleet; improved operational performance such as higher utilisation of aircraft; and better use of infrastructure.

That improvement is representative of huge efforts by all parts of the sector.

  • It is over a trillion dollars spent on some 8,000 new fuel efficient aircraft entering the fleet since the goals were announced.
  • It is over 2,000 commercial flights on alternative fuels.
  • It is 8,300 aircraft being fitted with new technology wingtip devices and cutting 55 million tonnes of CO2 in the process.
  • It’s replacing heavy flight crew manuals with tablet computers.
  • It’s hooking aircraft up to fixed ground power and pre-conditioned air.
  • It’s thinking of new ways to route and land aircraft.
  • It’s everything in this set of case studies… and more… everyday, everywhere.

The 2.9% average improvement is a sign that hard work and collaboration pays off. But it is a figure that is likely to normalise over the next few years. So whilst we can expect to continue meeting our short-term goal of 1.5% fuel efficiency improvements, it is incumbent on every part of the system to re-double their efforts.


Serving the world

When we talk to governments, particularly those in emerging economies and small island states, there is a concern that action to reduce aviation emissions will also reduce flights and lead to service downgrades, having impacts well beyond the sector itself. These governments understand and appreciate the important role aviation plays in their economies. ATAG has highlighted this in the past: 58 million jobs, half of all international tourists, a third of world trade and $2.4 trillion in global GDP supported by air travel.

How do we reconcile the need to continue supporting economic growth with the need to cut CO2 emissions? The second and third goals we set out attempt to do just that:


Goal two: CNG2020

Our mid-term objective of carbon-neutral growth from 2020 now aligns very well with the UN climate talks’ timeframe for the start of a new climate agreement.

In order to meet our goal, we will need governments to agree to the development of a global market-based measure at the 2016 International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Assembly in one year’s time. It is a vital step towards a sustainable future for aviation and, once agreed, will be the first time there has ever been a global market-based measure of any sort.

We’ll be covering that subject off tomorrow.


Goal three: -50% CO2 by 2050

In the long-term, we have said we will halve CO2 emissions from air transport by 2050, based on 2005 levels. It’s an ambitious goal and work is already underway to achieve it, focusing on two key areas: radical new technology and sustainable alternative fuels for aviation.

We are going to explore these two topics this morning and in Aviation Climate Solutions we showcase just a few of the innovative alternative fuel projects underway right now. But starting from a very modest base today, these low-carbon fuels will provide a great deal of our needs in the future.

I mentioned earlier that over 2,000 commercial flights on sustainable alternative fuels had taken place so far. Over 20 airlines have made those flights a reality and a few of them have shown outstanding leadership by committing to the long-term development of this important energy supply. Significant equity stakes and forward purchase agreements have been signed and there will be more to come.

These pioneers are leading the way for all airlines.

They are also taking a long-term perspective of which all airlines should take note. We are currently in a temporary period of low fuel prices. But the cost of oil is extremely volatile and will increase at some point in the future. We have an opportunity now to secure our energy future and that is why I urge you all to take a long-term view, looking out to 15 or 20 years’ time.


An opportunity awaits

One of the success stories in alternative fuels has been the use of waste products as a feedstock. A UNEP report released a couple of weeks ago identifies that every year some seven to ten billion tonnes of urban waste is generated worldwide causing major public health, economic and environmental problems. The report estimates that three billion people lack access to controlled waste disposal facilities and shows the top 50 disposal sites.

Right now in Lebanon, protesters are clashing with police over a mountain of municipal waste building up in Beirut. We’ve seen the same issues in the past in European cities as well (e.g. Naples). A lot of that waste is normal, organic, household waste. It’s a climate problem as methane emissions from the waste are up to 84 times more damaging to the climate than CO2 alone, it’s a health issue for people living close by and at its core it’s simply a space issue.

Recycling should play a big role in decreasing this burden. Reducing consumption and the creation of waste to begin with is another area for action. But with nine billion people expected to be living on our earth by 2050, waste will always be a challenge. But we can use that waste to generate alternative fuels for our flights. It can help solve all three problems at once, but it will take some trust and leadership by airlines in those countries, by their governments and by the investment community.

For those of us keeping a close eye on the alternative aviation fuel story it seems to take a long time. But keep this in mind: we flew the first commercial aircraft test flight on biofuel only in 2008. Seven years later and we will have alternative fuel on regular daily flights by the end of the year. That’s not bad, when you consider that the fossil fuel industry had 100 years to develop its empire. Fossil fuels still receive an estimated annual $5.3 trillion in subsidies from the world’s governments. Imagine what could be achieved if even a portion of those funds went into minimising the risk of the construction of alternative jet fuel plants, or researching new sustainable feedstock opportunities.


Stop teaching us to suck eggs

A few weeks ago, a think tank called The New Climate Economy published a report outlining the opportunities for emissions reductions in aviation and shipping. The report is a largely fair assessment of the benefits in introducing efficiency measures in these two international transport sectors. However, the accompanying press release had a quote from one of the authors saying: “What we need now is strong leadership from ICAO [and IMO], backed by major companies in each sector, to turn the talk into concrete action”… Well, ICAO is showing leadership and the aviation industry is backing it. Concrete action is shown in the pages of the Aviation Climate Solutions report and at airports around the world every day.

I am certain we’ll see more of these reports in the coming months… I just hope that the authors are not spending too much money trying to tell us what we have known for years and recommending that we do exactly what we’re already doing!


Keep pedalling

However repetitive, those reminders can be useful. It is going to be hard to keep our efficiency levels as high as they are now. An ICAO agreement at next year’s Assembly will need strong leadership, courage and tenacity. It is going to be very challenging to reach our long-term goal.

Just as the British Cycling team has maintained a winning streak by exploiting every single 1% of marginal gain they can, the team’s director has also spoken about watching out for marginal losses. Taking care not to cut a corner here, or forgetting your hard-nosed discipline just one time can lead to a gradual return to normality. We have to keep our performance as tight as it can be. We have to empower our teams to identify opportunities for efficiency. We can’t let fluctuations in fuel prices delay long-term efficiency projects – and I am encouraged to see airline bosses generally viewing it this way.

We have published this report for two reasons. The first is to demonstrate the sheer volume of action taking place worldwide. We should be rightly proud of the focus on efficiency.

But it should also be seen as a handbook. A ‘how-to’ guide for colleagues around the world who want to improve their efficiency and help in our global effort to secure our sector’s license to grow. We urge all airlines, airports, air navigation service providers, manufacturers and partners to look through the report, identify opportunities and get working on cutting fuel use and emissions.

These are exciting times for our industry and this area –the announcement of the sustainable development goals just over the weekend, the upcoming COP21 in Paris, next year’s ICAO Assembly. With almost daily developments in our field, it is sometimes hard to keep up with the pace.

But as we move into this next year of intense activity, I think it’s helpful to pause and reflect on exactly what it is we’re trying to achieve here.

Setting aside the international politics at play, fascinating as they are – we’re looking to establish our licence to grow, the sustainable future development of our industry, our contribution to what our world leaders have called “the need to care for our common home” or to avoid “condemning our children and grandchildren to a future of climate chaos”.

I am confident as I look around this room and as I flick through the pages of our new publication that the brain power, energy and commitment certainly exists for us collectively to succeed.