PARIS • Under pressure from frequent flyers alarmed over climate change, the airline industry says it is hell-bent on reducing emissions - but the technology needed to drastically reduce its carbon footprint is still out of reach.
In recent months, climate activists have stepped up efforts to convince travellers to boycott air travel, with Swedish schoolgirl and campaigner Greta Thunberg spearheading the trains-over-planes movement and making flygskam, or flight shame, a buzzword in the Scandinavian country.
"The sector is under considerable pressure," admitted Mr Alexandre de Juniac, chief executive of the International Air Transport Association (Iata), whose members met earlier this month in Seoul.
The industry has been under fire over its carbon emissions which, at 285g of carbon dioxide emitted per kilometre travelled by a passenger, far exceed all other modes of transport. Road transportation follows at 158g and rail travel is at 14g, according to European Environment Agency figures.
Mr de Juniac said the industry was hell-bent on lowering emissions, but the sector is also accused of underestimating its environmental impact, with the Iata chief lobbying heavily against a green tax on aviation backed by several countries, including the Netherlands.
"Often, these taxes are absorbed in the budgets of states and are spent on whatever they want, except the environment," he said.
The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) estimates that air transport is responsible for 2 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, roughly equivalent to the overall emissions of Germany, according to consulting firm Sia Partners.
CARBON DIOXIDE EMISSIONS
(per km travelled by a passenger)
But aircraft also emit particles such as nitrogen oxides, which can trap heat at high altitude, meaning the industry is responsible for 5 per cent of global warming, according to the Climate Action Network, an umbrella group of environmental non-governmental organisations.
The industry has committed to improving fuel efficiency by 1.5 per cent per year from 2009 to next year and stabilising its carbon dioxide emissions in preparation for a 50 per cent reduction by 2050 compared with 2005.
It is a major challenge, given that the number of passengers is expected to double over the next two decades.
Companies are banking on a new generation of less polluting planes with updated engines, aerodynamic modifications and fittings that weigh less.
Mr Shukor Yusof, an analyst with Malaysia-based Endau Analytics, said the industry had made progress, but "that all these technological advances to cut emissions are tough to implement quickly due to the nature of the industry hemmed in by high costs and the fact that planes typically take decades before they are replaced".
Mr Philippe Plouvier, associate director of consulting firm Boston Consulting Group in Paris, said "the constant renewal of the fleet is a major part of it (cutting emissions)", explaining that the latest models of large aircraft reduce carbon dioxide by 20 per cent to 25 per cent.
"But that solves only about 30 per cent of the problem," he said. The rest, he added, can be resolved only by developing sustainable biofuels or turning to electric power, technology which is currently impractical.
Several airlines have begun testing biofuels but production costs remain high and industry experts do not believe electric engines will be rolled out commercially for another two decades.
"Batteries today are too big and heavy to be used as the main source of power for aircraft," said Mr Leithen Francis, managing director of Singapore-based aviation public relations agency Francis & Low.
The ICAO said better management of air traffic can help, and a new generation of more fuel-efficient plane designs is predicted within five or 10 years.
But time is not on the aviation industry's side.
A landmark United Nations report last year concluded that carbon dioxide emissions must drop 45 per cent by 2030 and reach "net-zero" by 2050, if the rise in earth's temperature is to be checked at the safer limit of 1.5 deg C.
Mr Plouvier of the Boston Consulting Group said that to meet the 2050 goal, the aviation industry "must start today and very quickly".