Sustainability practices in air cargo: Navigating towards a green future

The air cargo industry strives for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, driven by sustainable fuels, advanced technologies, and efficiency improvements.

Sustainability practices in air cargo: Navigating towards a green future
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The air cargo industry has emerged as a critical player in a world where rapid deliveries can mean the difference between life and death. Air cargo has become an indispensable part of global logistics, swiftly transporting vaccines, critical medicines, and e-commerce goods. The demand for air cargo services is on the rise.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the world freighter fleet is projected to grow by 70% over the next two decades. This expansion is driven by increasing demand from fast fashion brands and the booming cross-border e-commerce sector. As capacity expands, the industry faces the dual challenge of meeting this demand while reducing its carbon footprint.

This high-speed convenience comes at an environmental cost that the industry is now striving to mitigate through innovative sustainability practices.

The roadmap towards sustainability
During the 2021 IATA meeting in Boston, USA, airlines committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. This goal reflects the industry's dedication to reducing its environmental impact and addressing the urgent challenge of climate change. IATA and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) are guiding airlines in meeting ambitious sustainability goals, while airports offer incentives for using SAF. Airlines are also modernising fleets and increasing their use of SAF.

"The UN Secretary-General (António) Guterres has called all means of transport to realise net-zero emissions by 2050. And, we have answered this call with targets and plans for international transport," said Salvatore Sciacchitano, President of ICAO Council, during his opening speech at the Future Aviation Forum 2024 conference held recently in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The President of ICAO announced the organisation is creating a detailed roadmap to guide organisations, stakeholders, and members toward achieving sustainability goals. This roadmap will involve collaborating with the energy and financial sectors to increase investment in sustainable initiatives through international cooperation. A key priority is operationalising the ICAO project, which aims to facilitate access to investment capacity and funding from financial institutions.

Similarly, “TIACA has specific programmes, specifically the BlueSky sustainability assessment programme designed to support all organisations in understanding where they stand against industry best practices in many areas of sustainability,” as stated by Glyn Hughes, Director General, TIACA, in TIACA’s latest Air Cargo Sustainability Insights Report.

A multi-faceted approach towards sustainability
Addressing the environmental impact of air cargo involves a multi-faceted approach, focusing on fuel innovations, operational efficiency, and technological advancements. "Combating climate change is key, and we need to start using the more sustainable solutions we have available today," Alexander Kueper, Vice President, Renewable Aviation Business at Neste, said during a recent interview with The STAT Trade Times.

"At the same time, we need to ensure that the high-quality, lower-emission solutions we offer to our customers comply with relevant legislation. We also need to credibly and transparently communicate their benefits to all our stakeholders," added Kueper. Neste, based in Finland, is a leading producer of sustainable fuels.

According to the fourth annual air cargo industry sustainability survey by TIACA, the sustainability pressure (67%) has increased globally by 3 points compared to last year and 9 points compared to the first report in 2021 mainly driven by demands from customers (80%), employees (73%) and business partners (69%). Moreover, the survey revealed that companies see a clear link between their ESG ( Environmental, Social, and Governance) performance and their reputation (85%) and attractiveness (73%) but less so for their bottom line (39%).

How SAF can transform the way planes fly
SAFis a key part of the industry's strategy to lower emissions. It is produced from renewable sources such as recycled cooking oil or captured CO2 and can significantly reduce CO2 emissions compared to traditional jet fuel. According to IATA, SAF has the potential to contribute to approximately 65% of the emission reductions required to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

"When used in neat form, SAF reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80% over the fuel's life cycle, compared to using fossil jet fuel."

Alexander Kueper, Neste

According to Kueper, SAF has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80% compared to fossil jet fuel. Talking about the source of SAF, Kueper further said, "Neste MY SAF is produced from 100% renewable waste and residue raw materials, such as used cooking oil and animal fat waste. It is manufactured using Neste's proprietary NEXBTL technology, which is based on HEFA technology (Hydrotreated Esters and Fatty Acids). HEFA-SAF is currently the most commercially viable technology for producing SAF globally."

Neste MY sustainable aviation fuel

While talking from the airlines' perspective, American Airlines Cargo's VP Greg Schwendinger said, "Today, almost all the SAF is made from the HEFA process." American (Airlines) has been using HEFA SAF since 2020, and in the past year, we have used 3.6 million gallons of SAF. The HEFA SAF we use is made from waste fats and oils, and it has 75% less life cycle greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions than conventional jet fuel."

"American Airlines Cargo has been using HEFA SAF since 2020, and in the past year, we used 3.6 million gallons of SAF, further planning to replace 10% of jet fuel with SAF by 2030."

Greg Schwendinger, American Airlines Cargo

Kueper states, "The demand for SAF is increasing as aviation has set a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and airlines are including SAF in their sustainability policies."

However, the limited supply of waste fats and oils has led to a search for SAF pathways that utilise more widely available feedstocks. Despite the high cost and short supply of SAF, American Airlines is actively seeking to purchase it and has finalised an agreement with Infinium, a producer of next-generation low-carbon jet fuel.

This partnership aims to support the long-term production of SAF. American Airlines is also investing in emerging climate technologies through a partnership with Breakthrough Energy Catalyst. The focus is on promoting a process that converts waste CO2, water, and renewable power into jet fuel, potentially reducing life cycle emissions by 90-100%. The goal is to eventually lead to lower-cost, low-emission SAF in the future.

On a positive note, Hughes also stated, “We see significant increases in organisations’ focus on energy efficiency and carbon footprints reductions. Fleet renewals feature in airline and ground handler strategies, as well as green more efficient buildings and optimisation strategies leveraging innovation and digitalisation.”

Neste's Kueper emphasises the importance of supporting policies in ramping up SAF production, citing positive developments in the European Union, the US, Singapore, and India. These policies aim to increase the supply and adoption of SAF, providing demand certainty to attract investments and support airlines in integrating SAF into their operations. "Additionally, voluntary demand by businesses looking to reduce the carbon footprint of their business travel and air freight can provide additional demand," informed Kueper.

The demand for SAF is clearly on the rise as more and more airlines pledge to replace traditional fossil fuels with sustainable options in the coming years. For instance, American Airlines Cargo's Schwendinger said, "As an airline, we have set milestones along the way for achieving net zero emissions by 2050, including replacing 10% of jet fuel with SAF by 2030, reducing GHG emissions intensity by 45% by 2035, and targeting net zero emissions by 2050."

"DHL Global Forwarding can offer the customers a GoGreen Plus service, which helps them to reduce their GHG emissions from transport by utilising SAF. This can be offered on charter flights as well as on any other air freight service being offered," said Erdem Sari, Regional Air Charter Manager, StarBroker – DHL Global Forwarding, Middle East and Africa. DHL StarBroker is DHL Global Forwarding's in-house charter team.

How are airlines contributing towards the sustainability goal
Major players in the aviation industry are actively incorporating SAF into their operations. Virgin Atlantic successfully executed the first transatlantic flight using 100% SAF, showcasing its potential for large-scale use.

"Astral has a clear long-term sustainability plan that involves reducing carbon emissions by 5% by 2030 using SAFs. In addition, Astral has outlined fleet modernisation, operational efficiency, carbon offsetting, stakeholder engagement, reporting, and Transparency," informed Sanjeev Gadhia, CEO at Astral Aviation, to The STAT Trade Times.

According to TIACA, offsetting is gaining some traction, probably due to mandatory schemes. 43% of companies use offsetting mechanisms.

Neste's Kueper also emphasised the importance of CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) as a global market-based measure to reduce emissions from international aviation. In addition to fuel innovations, enhancing operational efficiency through improved air traffic management and fleet modernisation with more fuel-efficient aircraft is crucial for reducing fuel consumption and emissions in the aviation industry.

According to IATA, new aircraft models can reduce emissions by 15-20%, contributing to an impressive 80% improvement in fleet fuel efficiency over the past 50 years.

"In recent years, American (Airline) has undertaken the most extensive fleet renewal effort in the history of commercial aviation, which gives it the youngest mainline fleet of any major U.S. network carrier and improves fuel efficiency. And we expect to receive deliveries of newer aircraft still on order in the coming years, including 30 widebody Boeing 787s," said VP of American Airlines Cargo.

According to Leonard Rodrigues, Etihad Cargo's Head of Revenue Management & Network Planning, "Etihad Cargo is committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, in alignment with Abu Dhabi's Environment Vision 2030 and IATA industry targets. A critical aspect of this commitment involves renewing the fleet with newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft to significantly reduce the carbon footprint."

Unity is the key to sustainability
According to the TIACA survey, 75% of respondents declare they actively upgrade their fleet to cleaner aerial and ground vehicles. This is 25 points more than last year and it is driven by the 100% of ground handlers renewing their GSEs (Ground Support Equipment) and cars and 91% of airlines modernising their aircraft.

The air cargo industry aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 through a collaborative effort involving airlines, manufacturers, and regulators. In an interview with The STAT Trade Times, Marie Owens Thomsen, IATA's Chief Economist, emphasised the importance of unity and a shared commitment to sustainability. She believes that by recognising the necessity of civil aviation and its role in economic growth, the industry can prioritise reducing CO2 emissions.

Similarly, AA Cargo's Vice President stresses the need for industry-wide collaboration on sustainable practices. He highlights the crucial role of airports in enabling airlines to transition to electric ground support equipment and mentions the availability of federal grants to support such initiatives in the US. Almost 25% of American Airlines' ground support equipment is electric-powered.

TIACA survey further found that 71% of airports are transitioning to green buildings,, and 79% are actively tackling their water management issues while 80% are focusing on reducing their noise footprint.

Airports contribute to sustainability by using electric ground handling equipment and recycling materials like single-use plastics and de-icing fluids. For example, Zurich Airport is involved in a project to convert used plastics into aviation fuel.

Talking from the airport perspective, James Golding, Head of Cargo at London’s Heathrow Airport, said, "At Heathrow, with 95% of cargo flying in the belly hold of passenger aircraft, our wider work to incentivise airlines to use more SAF is a big part of this. By subsidising the gap between traditional aircraft fuel and SAF, we can drive up the use of these fuels at the airport – predicted to reach up to 2.5% of all fuel used at Heathrow this year."

“By subsidising the gap between traditional aircraft fuel and SAF, we can drive up the use of these fuels at the airport.”

James Golding, Heathrow Airport

Heathrow Airport is implementing a SAF scheme to reduce carbon emissions from flights. The scheme aims to incentivise the use of up to 155,000 tonnes of SAF at the airport in 2024, which is expected to result in a reduction of 341,755 tonnes of carbon emissions from flights.

By reducing the price gap between traditional kerosene fuel and SAF, Heathrow Airport's scheme encourages airlines to switch to the greener alternative. The airport is targeting an 11% usage of SAF by 2030 and is committed to scaling up the incentive year on year. This initiative is one of the airport's significant steps towards achieving its goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

While Liege Airport does not have its own incentive schemes for SAFs, it relies on the European directive RefuelEU, which will come into effect in 2025. Frederic Brun, Head of Commercial Cargo and Logistics at Liege Airport, said the airport has implemented the Collaborative Environmental Management (CEM) initiative involving airlines and air traffic controllers, among others. Additionally, Liege Airport has developed a stakeholder engagement plan as part of its carbon certification, promoting multimodality to shift freight transport to other modes of transportation.

While talking about the sustainability activities on the ground, Golding mentioned that they are focused on improving employee facilities and implementing measures to reduce carbon emissions by 45% by 2030. This includes promoting the use of electric ground handling equipment and collaborating with the UK government to streamline operations and reduce unnecessary vehicle journeys. For instance, they have introduced "milk runs" for cargo deliveries and collections to minimise low load factor and multiple vehicle trips in partnership with the UK government.

“Sustainable HVO100 fuel will be made available for all handlers, along with the installation of charging stations both airside and landside at the airport."

Frederic Brun, Liege Airport

On behalf of Liege Airport, Brun said, "There is a programme in place considering the needs of handlers for greening the vehicle fleet. Additionally, sustainable HVO100 fuel will be made available for all handlers, along with the installation of charging stations both airside and landside."

Sustainability initiatives beyond SAF
Airlines are actively pursuing sustainability initiatives beyond SAF. For example, American Airlines Cargo has invested in ZeroAvia and Universal Hydrogen, companies working on hydrogen-electric aviation power plants. Additionally, companies like Airbus and Aviation are leading the way in electric aircraft for short-haul flights, with the aim of reducing emissions and noise pollution.

Airbus's ZEROe concepts, which include hydrogen-powered designs, aim to have the first zero-emission commercial aircraft in service by 2035. ZeroAvia has also achieved a significant milestone in hydrogen propulsion with the successful testing of a hydrogen engine on its Dornier 228 plane.

American Airlines Cargo is focused on using renewable energy to power its facilities in North Texas, achieving 100% renewable energy usage. The company is also working on reducing plastic waste in its cargo operations and has partnered with BioNatur Plastics to reduce long-term plastic waste, equivalent to 8.6 million plastic water bottles by 2023. BioNatur Plastics' products biodegrade in natural landfill conditions in 8-12 years, significantly faster than regular plastic.

Moreover, the TIACA survey found that 88% of aircraft, OEM (Original equipment manufacturer), ULD (Unit Load Devices) manufacturers and 64% of airlines are investing in lightweight materials to reduce the weight of vehicles and ancillary equipment.

The way ahead
The air cargo industry is making strides in sustainability through innovations like sustainable fuels and electric/hydrogen propulsion. However, stakeholders should avoid greenwashing and rely on credible standards and verifications for environmental claims.

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