How air cargo is embracing green practices

How air cargo is embracing green practices
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The global economy relies on air cargo, but its relentless growth comes at a steep price. The environmental cost is rising, making sustainable practices no longer a luxury, but an essential requirement.

Global trade thrives on air cargo. It's the invisible hand that delivers life-saving treatments, keeps supermarket shelves stocked with exotic delights and much more. Yet, this convenience comes at a price - a hidden environmental cost that threatens the very system it supports.

Air cargo is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, leaving a significant environmental footprint. A recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report paints a stark picture: “Emissions increased by 410 million tonnes, or 1.1%, in 2023 – compared with a rise of 490 million tonnes the year before, taking them to a record level of 37.4 gigatonnes.” And aviation contributes roughly 2% to that. Aircraft emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulates further pollute the air and contribute to climate change. As air cargo traffic continues its relentless climb, so too does its environmental burden. Sustainable practices are no longer a luxury, they're an urgent necessity.

Image Source: IEA (2023), “CO2 emissions in 2023”, and Aviation update July 2023.

A multi-faceted approach
There's no silver bullet for achieving sustainability in air cargo. Instead, a multi-pronged approach is needed, targeting various aspects of the industry.

Fuel Innovations: Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) are a game-changer. SAF is a biofuel derived from renewable sources like plant oils or waste materials. Several airlines have announced commitments to increase their use of SAF in recent years.

Virgin Atlantic completed the first transatlantic flight powered entirely by SAF in November 2023, transporting a Kuehne+Nagel shipment, demonstrating the technology's viability. Cargolux and Norwegian Air Shuttle's SAF forward purchase agreements with Norsk e-fuel are another strong signal of growing demand from airlines (January 2024). Cathay Pacific's corporate SAF programme with nine corporate customers further underscores the multi-sectoral push for SAF adoption.

Technological Advancements: Aircraft manufacturers are constantly innovating to improve fuel efficiency. Newer models boast lighter designs, aerodynamic improvements, and more efficient engines. For instance, in 2021, Airbus introduced the A350F aircraft renowned for its exceptional fuel efficiency and diminished CO2 emissions. This model boasts a significant advantage in fuel efficiency compared to the Boeing 747 freighter, consuming 40% less fuel. Set to commence service in 2026, the A350F is anticipated to revolutionise freight transport with its environmentally conscious design.

Operational Optimisations: Airlines and logistics providers are implementing operational changes to minimise fuel consumption. This includes optimising flight paths, reducing ground idling time, and implementing efficient loading procedures. IATA's "ONE Record" digital platform streamlines cargo documentation processes, potentially reducing delays and optimising overall logistics.

Carbon Offsetting Programme: While not a long-term solution, carbon offsetting programmes allows companies to invest in projects that remove carbon from the atmosphere, neutralising their emissions. Several major airlines offer carbon offset options to their customers.

Infrastructure Investments: Airports are playing their part by investing in sustainable infrastructure. This includes upgrading ground handling equipment to reduce emissions, installing solar panels for renewable energy, and developing "green taxiways" that optimise aircraft movements on the ground. Changi Airport Group's multi-million dollar investment in sustainable infrastructure projects at their hub in March 2024 exemplifies this commitment.

Industry Regulations and Policies: Regulatory bodies are also pushing for change. The EU's Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) includes air cargo under its carbon pricing mechanism. In 2022, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) elevated the standards for the carbon offsetting and reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), shifting its focus from carbon-neutral growth to targeting an 85% reduction in net CO2 emissions compared to 2019 levels by 2024 and continuing through 2035. This ambitious objective marks a significant stride towards a more environmentally sustainable future for air cargo.

Examples in Action
Industry leaders are taking concrete steps. Menzies Aviation’s approach focuses on measuring environmental impact throughout their cargo operations, setting recycling targets, working with suppliers for better solutions, and prioritising sustainable options. Their commitment to sustainability extends to solar power for warehouses, rainwater harvesting, wastewater treatment plants for water reuse, and electric forklifts.

"Sustainability is a key focus at Menzies. For cargo, this means considering solar power for warehouses, aiming for 80 to 90% electricity from rooftop panels. In Bangalore, we've installed a wastewater treatment plant for water reuse. Rainwater harvesting in our new warehouse ensures self-sufficiency. Inside, electric forklifts reduce our carbon footprint, and digital platforms minimise paper usage. Our dedication to environmental protection remains unwavering"
Charles Wyley, EVP- Middle East, Asia, Africa, Menzies Aviation during an exclusive conversation at Air Cargo India 2024.

Airbus spearheads aviation decarbonisation with a comprehensive strategy aligned with IATA, Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), and ICAO's net-zero carbon target by 2050. Their latest aircraft offer 20-30% CO2 savings, while operational optimisations can achieve a 10% reduction. Airbus aims to introduce a hydrogen-powered aircraft by 2035. Additionally, they support CORSIA and high-quality carbon removal solutions, achieving up to 40% greater efficiency with the A350F compared to its predecessors.

"Our aircraft can fly with a 50% blend of SAF today and we are working together to achieve 100% concentration by 2030. This is where we, as an OEM, are doing the research and can make a significant difference. At Airbus, in terms of SAF, we want to act as a catalyst for the aviation industry and drive not only our products but also the whole ecosystem for rapid adoption of SAF," said Thomas Burger, Marketing Director Environment and Sustainability, Airbus. Burger further highlighted the immense potential of SAF in reducing emissions. With up to 80% reduction in CO2 emissions compared to traditional jet fuel, SAF offers a significant leap towards a cleaner future.

India’s upcoming Noida International Airport (NIA) is an example of an airport taking concrete steps towards sustainability. Their recent conversation with us highlighted their efforts in wastewater management and other eco-friendly practices. This focus on responsible resource management showcases the industry-wide commitment to environmental responsibility.

“In the terminal, passive measures such as the use of natural lighting, natural ventilation, and glare protection will help improve the airport user experience and reduce the CO2 footprint and energy costs. To ensure sustainability in cargo-related operations, NIA will have provisions for paperless trade, waste management, just-in-time processes, and integration between the Integrated Cargo Terminal (ICT) and Integrated Warehousing and Logistics Zone (IWLZ),” stated Kiran Jain, Chief Operating Officer, NIA. “Additionally, we will develop PV for solar production which will reduce CO2 footprint and lower energy costs in the long run and no diesel vehicles will be used on the airside. We are envisaging NIA to be a role model for sustainable infrastructure and operations in the country.”

Unilode Aviation Solutions, a leading provider of outsourced ULD (unit load device) container solutions, emphasises ULD pooling as a key sustainability strategy. Pooling allows airlines to share ULDs across different routes, reducing empty-leg flights and overall resource consumption. This collaborative approach exemplifies the industry's willingness to work together for a greener future.

“When we enter a pooling arrangement, an airline can reduce the number of ULDs it needs by up to 20%. This means that the airlines are not moving empty ULDs around their network so the carbon emissions are saved in terms of moving cargo rather than empty ULDs"
Ross Marino, CEO, Unilode Aviation Solutions

Kale Logistics Solutions, a prominent player in the air cargo industry, highlights digitalisation as a crucial driver of sustainability. Amar More, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Kale Logistics emphasised how their digital platform, Airport Cargo Community Systems, can streamline processes, minimise paperwork, and optimise operations, ultimately reducing the environmental footprint.

Brenden Sullivan, Global Head of Cargo, IATA echoed the air cargo sector's push for sustainability at the World Cargo Symposium (WCS) 2024. He emphasised the collective responsibility to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, highlighting both the urgency and the challenge of limited SAF supply. He pointed to successful government incentives in Japan and Singapore as a model for overcoming this hurdle, urging other countries to follow suit.

Atlas Air chief executive Michael Steen exemplifies the industry's commitment to SAF by showcasing their efforts in incorporating it into their operations. These real-world applications demonstrate the viability and growing adoption of sustainable alternatives.

Lufthansa Cargo's fleet modernisation programme resulted in a 52% reduction in CO2 emissions per tonne-kilometre (TKT) over the past 25 years. Their 2030 target of a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions compared to 2019 further emphasises their commitment to continuous improvement.

Cathay Pacific Cargo Terminal has made significant strides in waste reduction. Their recycling efforts have resulted in a 30% reduction in waste intensity in 2023 compared to 2022. They've also doubled their water diversion rate and significantly decreased single-use plastic consumption, demonstrating a holistic approach to environmental responsibility.

“The Cathay Cargo Terminal is the first cargo terminal in Hong Kong to adopt 50% recycled plastic cargo cover sheets for all export cargo shipments built up within its terminal, increasing from its current specifications of no less than 30% recycled content"
Rajesh Menon, Regional Head- South Asia, Middle East and Africa, Cathay Cargo.

In March 2024, Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals Limited (HACTL) signed an MOU with Westwell Holdings (Hong Kong) to introduce Autonomous Electric Tractors (AETs) to its ramp operations in 2024 that will eventually contribute to its carbon reduction programme. On the other hand, Asia Airfreight Terminal (AAT) is also planning to deploy the same within its operations. “We aim to adopt this cutting-edge technology for not only improving operational efficiency but also contributing to sustainability efforts by reducing carbon emissions,” stated Mike Chew, Chief Executive Officer of AAT.

Challenges and Opportunities
While significant progress is being made, challenges remain. The production and availability of SAF are still limited, and its cost is currently higher than traditional jet fuel. Additionally, infrastructure upgrades require substantial investment, and ensuring global collaboration across the industry can be complex.

The widespread adoption of SAF also faces economic hurdles. As Steve Townes of ACL Airshop stated at WCS, "The widespread adoption of SAF is no longer just an engineering challenge. It is an economic one." Policy changes and incentives can play a crucial role in making SAF more accessible and cost-competitive.

Aligning with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
The air cargo industry contributes directly to several of the UN's SDGs. According to a report by McKinsey & Company, "The air cargo industry directly contributes to meeting the targets of seven of the seventeen goals set out in the United Nations Agenda 2030." This alignment with broader sustainability goals underscores the industry's potential to be a positive force for global progress.

Looking Forward
The air cargo industry faces a critical crossroads. While it plays an undeniable role in our interconnected world, its environmental impact demands action. However, a wave of innovation is taking flight. From cleaner fuels to optimised operations and industry-wide collaboration, stakeholders are charting a course towards a greener future. Challenges remain, but the potential for a sustainable air cargo industry is undeniable. As the industry continues to embrace new technologies and responsible practices, we can all play a part. By supporting green initiatives and holding stakeholders accountable, we can ensure that essential goods continue to fly, but with a lighter environmental footprint.

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