Speech: Michael Gill, ATAG Open Letter


Geneva - The Executive Director of the Air Transport Action Group, Michael Gill, delivered a speech at the Global Sustainable Aviation Summit 2015, where he made a call to governments on behalf of the aviation industry.

Thank you very much Dr Aliu for your strong message. Thank you also for honouring us with your presence here this week and indeed for your continuing leadership on the international scene in this area. You spoke about partnership and I am pleased to confirm ATAG and the industry’s support for the ICAO process on climate change. I want to take a few minutes to talk about that now.

We are at a pivotal moment in international climate processes. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said that the stars are aligned as never before to achieve an international climate agreement. Sixty days from now in Paris, Governments will gather to negotiate an agreement which will shape the way the world responds to the challenge of limiting human impact on the climate in the next decades. It’s been a long process and not without its challenges. But there is hope that the COP21 conference will deliver what is needed – governments are responding, civil society has certainly been vocal and businesses of all types are now pushing for climate action as well.

From aviation’s perspective, we have been pushing already since 2008. We developed our plan of action and presented it to governments. And they responded. The process at ICAO, under President Aliu’s leadership and that of his colleagues on the ICAO Council, particularly since the 2013 Assembly has been very encouraging.

Whilst the UN Climate Talks in Paris in 60 days are vital to the world figuring out how to effectively deal with climate change, we have our own process and one year from now… in fact, in exactly 363 days … the ICAO Assembly will gather in Montreal. That is the right place to deal with aviation.

The aviation industry is once again joining the chorus of business leaders calling for robust and determined climate action.

This morning, a letter appeared in the Financial Times and on the internet from 28 directors general, chief executives and heads of associations. A copy of the letter is available outside the room. These leaders represent businesses with a combined trillion dollars in annual revenue, some four million employees, over 90% of global airline passengers, 1,861 airports and air navigation service providers supporting 85% of air traffic. They represent airlines from across the spectrum: large global network carriers and low fare airlines, regional operators and developing nation flag carriers.

They are united in a common position that industry and governments must work together to solve this issue.

Since the industry first developed global goals on reducing emissions, airlines have spent over a trillion dollars on new aircraft. Manufacturers invest $15 billion a year in new technology research and development, much of it to reduce emissions. Airports and air navigation service providers have been engaged in impressive collaborative action. It has brought results and is a continuation of years of efficiency action in the industry.

You can experience this yourselves – on average, your flights home will produce around half the CO2 that the same trip would have in 1990. In other words, we have doubled the fuel efficiency of our operations in the last 25 years.

We already have a plan to deal with the next 35 years up to 2050 and are working hard on making it a reality. But, there is only so much the industry can do by ourselves. We are a heavily regulated sector. And to fully realise the potential for efficiency measures we will need governments to step up and commit too.

It must take place through a range of actions: air traffic management investment and reform; continued support for research into new technology, operations and sustainable alternative fuels; improved intermodal transport planning; and the right policy framework to help accelerate the availability of sustainable alternative fuels for aviation.

Importantly, we need governments meeting at the 39th ICAO Assembly to endorse the implementation of a simple, global offsetting scheme which will stabilise air transport carbon emissions growth. Failure to agree will harm a vital global sector and harm our global climate.

We are within touching distance of an historic agreement and we have to finish the course.

The Open Letter from industry has been sent to the Secretary General of the United Nations, the head of the UNFCCC and the French Government delegation leading the COP21 talks in Paris. Over the next few weeks it will also be sent to governments around the world. The letter appears on our website and is accompanied by a clock counting down those 363 days to the ICAO Assembly. There are three key messages I want to convey:

»      The first is to my colleagues in the industry. We are working hard to bring home this deal on a global MBM. It will secure our future and is a pragmatic response to a potential patchwork of measures that would end up costing more, create competitive distortions and would harm the growth of our sector. Just as with countries meeting at the United Nations, we realise that individual airlines have their own specific concerns and priorities. But we need to be trusted to deliver the best results possible for the entire sector. As an industry, we took an unprecedented step as an industry back in 2008. We should be proud of setting the goals and of the enormous strides made in meeting them so far. Next year’s decision on the global market-based measure is a key part of the strategy and a vital signal to the world that we are ready to continue our role as responsible corporate citizens.

»      The same message goes to governments. There is no perfect solution to this challenge. But with faith in your negotiators and a constructive approach, we can ensure that aviation continues to be the vital conduit for world trade and connectivity that we are today, well into the future. However, whilst I have been encouraged by the collaboration seen so far and the willingness of all sides to come to the table, we need to make sure that the timelines do not slip and that the current positive momentum is not lost. Aviation has a distinct timeframe from the broader climate negotiations being undertaken at the UNFCCC. Although a progressive outcome in Paris can certainly help deliver a meaningful result at ICAO next September, let’s not wait until after December for the aviation talks to proceed. We have 363 days left. We are already so far advanced in our discussions, so let’s not throw away the opportunity we have. Let’s spend our time wisely!

»      The third goes to our colleagues in the environmental NGO community. You are there to push us to be better and it is an incredibly important role. We have noted your checklist for a successful outcome of the ICAO process and it is a thoughtful addition to the debate with a lot of key points. However, in this endeavour you do have a proactive and willing industry actually pushing for many of the same things you are. You have a committed UN Secretariat and you have governments that need some encouragement, but are also highly engaged. We are in the final stages of a truly historic agreement that could pave the way for the first global sectoral market-based measure. Care must be taken to ensure that the end result is a pragmatic – and workable – response to this global challenge.

Although we have our own process for dealing with emissions from the sector through ICAO, the COP21 talks in Paris will set the broader global agenda. The current negotiating draft text of the Paris agreement includes two references to aviation:

The first states that ICAO is the forum for air transport emissions action and asks all governments to work together there to make this a reality. We clearly support this approach.

The second reference in the draft text is on using aviation as a source of climate finance. This is causing concern amongst a number of countries – particularly those that rely heavily on air transport for their connectivity and economy. Developing and small island states could be particularly hard-hit by ratcheting up the costs of flying. Even the environmental groups championing such a scheme acknowledge the damage it will do to tourism and trade. Such a blunt instrument will not have any measurable environmental benefit. Therefore, we will continue to insist that a global MBM developed though ICAO is a way to not only ensure fair distribution of responsibility, but also environmental integrity and financing to climate projects all over the world. That should be the focus.

However, outside of a strict aviation discussion, one element that is vital in the Paris agreement is the continuation and strengthening of international market systems – it is a necessary tool in the future climate regime and is absolutely imperative for aviation’s plans to be realised. The linkages between systems and an ability to track credits across national borders is good not only for use in an aviation context, but is important for climate responses throughout the private and public sectors. In our view, this must be part of a Paris agreement.

Last week, governments meeting at the UN in New York agreed a set of sustainable development goals which will set the tone for the international development agenda for the next 15 years. We will hear more about this later, but Goal 13 is specific to climate change. As a sector, we took a bold step six years ago – it was a pragmatic move to play our part in the climate challenge whilst also avoiding patchwork regulation popping up all over the world.

At ATAG, we believe there are other opportunities to show aviation business leadership in the broader sustainable development context. Businesses can no longer see themselves as exceptional to the needs and aspirations of society, but as an integral part of the sustainable development of economies and social structures. In aviation, we play such a vital role in that global village, so we must secure and earn our licence to grow… our permission to grow… and keep providing the services the world needs.

There is a whole generation of executives entering the ranks of our organisations… our leaders of the future… that look at business with a different frame of mind. No longer is the simple pursuit of profit and wealth the key aspiration of the “millennials” as they are known. Tomorrow’s CEOs (and I expect most of today’s as well) are looking to turn business into a driver of social and economic wellbeing, not at the expense of environmental security, but in support of it.

In this sense, we should stop talking about fuel efficiency and carbon neutral growth as simply a challenge. It is challenging, to be sure, but it is also an opportunity. As a business driven by technology and innovation, it is an opportunity for which we are uniquely prepared.