CO2 standard is a milestone for air transport's sustainable future

This week saw an important milestone for the aviation sector's ongoing efficiency drive with a technical, but important, new regulation taking shape at the specialised UN agency dealing with aviation, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

The agreement on an "aircraft CO2 Standard" (think the mileage standard on your car... although only if your car was a hugely complex vehicle incorporating the most advanced and safest technology and travelling at nearly the speed of sound in -60ºC conditions) is the culmination of six years of detailed negotiations. The outcome of nearly 700 reports and pieces of technical analysis by 170 experts represents yet another example of the international community's commitment to cutting aviation emissions. The industry has itself put in place ambitious CO2 reductions goals.

The sector is already surpassing its first goal of a 1.5% average annual improvement in fuel efficiency. Our second goal, carbon-neutral growth from 2020, will be made possible later this year when the ICAO Assembly meets to finalise a deal on an expected global scheme to address aviation's emissions. The third goal of a 50% reduction in overall emissions by 2050, compared to 2005 levels, is a longer-term aspiration, but one that aviation is already working to realise through significant investment in new technology and sustainable alternative fuels.

So, what is the CO2 standard and how does it work? As you'd expect it's rather complex, but simply put: for each aircraft type, categorised by its size and weight, the standard will determine the maximum CO2 that can be emitted per flight kilometre based on fuel use. These rules will apply to all new models of aircraft that come into service after 2020. For existing aircraft types, the standard will apply after 2023.

Whilst the Standard is a significant policy step (it will be reviewed regularly to ensure that it is increased in line with technology advancements), aircraft and engine manufacturers have always strived to achieve the highest level of fuel efficiency. The introduction of this standard will formalise what has until now been market-driven improvements.

Even without such interventions, each new generation of aircraft is roughly 15-20% more fuel efficient than its predecessor - efficiency driven by airline fuel efficiency demands. However, the introduction of the CO2 standard by ICAO demonstrates the shared desire of governments and industry to work together to address aviation's contribution to climate change.

The standard complements aviation's own four pillar strategy for cutting CO2, of which technological improvements, supported by the CO2 standard, are only one aspect. Operational efficiencies and infrastructure development also have extremely important roles to play and the industry is hoping that the political agreement this week will spur yet more support from governments in helping air transport to develop these areas as well. Serious investment is needed from the international community, as well as private companies, to move things forward and achieve longer-term CO2 reductions.

Importantly, the standard that was agreed is just one of a diverse basket of environmental measures being undertaken by industry and governments alike. With strong international policy leadership, aviation will achieve carbon-neutral growth from 2020. From then on, the focus will be fully on the long-term sustainable future of the industry.

It won't be easy, but if there's any industry that can foster the innovation and commitment needed, I am confident that it's aviation.