FROM MAGAZINE – Going green and getting lean: Air cargo takes the sustainable route

Regardless of turbulent economic times, sustainability is at the heart of the entire air freight business. The air transportation sector has now understood the need to address its role in tackling climate change, despite being an industry that is intrinsically built on burning fossil fuels. Ongoing efforts to reduce its carbon footprint, going paperless with e-freight and investing in lightweight ULDs, modernising fleet and making all cargo operations more efficient are steps taken in the right direction.

Since its early days, the aviation sector has been working hard at lowering carbon emissions and pollution. When the turbofan engine was invented back in the 70s, it led to a drastic fall in aircraft fuel consumption and marked an important milestone in the history of aviation. Then, the adoption of winglets on over 8300 aircraft globally led to a further decrease in fuel consumption by upto six percent. Winglets have saved over 20 billion litres of jet fuel and avoided over 56 million tonnes of CO2 emissions since the year 2000, according to the ATAG (Air Transport Action Group). 

Currently, air transport accounts for around two percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. However, International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecasts that the number of planes in the sky is likely to double by 2037.  With the steady growth of ecommerce, increasing globalisation and more express routes to Asia, a significant part of that air traffic will be dominated by air cargo. With the air freight sector projected to grow at five percent per year until 2050, faster than any other mode, its potential to increase carbon emissions also grows significantly. Hence, all actors in the air cargo supply chain are now getting their act together and are increasingly looking at ways to measure and improve their environmental performance.

Making sustainability a priority
IATA, on its part, has been very conscious on the sustainability agenda. The industry body recognises the need to address the global challenge of climate change and has adopted a set of ambitious targets to mitigate CO2 emissions from air transport. These targets include: an average improvement in fuel efficiency of 1.5 per cent per year from 2009 to 2020; a cap on net aviation CO2 emissions from 2020 (carbon-neutral growth) and reduction in net aviation CO2 emissions of 50 percent by 2050, relative to 2005 levels. 

In addition to this, IATA has advocated for an industry-wide carbon offset programme called CORSAIR under the global auspices of ICAO.  On the air cargo side, the facility of the future programme will showcase and promote industry best practice in addressing climate and resource materials in the most environmentally friendly fashion.

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dnata has replaced all its diesel forklifts with electric alternatives, reducing the carbon footprint at dnata’s cargo operations by 80 percent.

IATA also engages in education programmes to ensure that true facts are known about supply chain impacts on the environment.  For example, airports are often located closer to points of production and consumption and thus require less ground transport to support cargo movement than seaports.  Flying in fresh produce grown in natural conditions overseas reduces the need for countries to grow fresh produce under heated greenhouses with pesticides and fertilisers applied to compensate for cold conditions during winter in Europe, for example.  Environmental responsibility is a key industry driver.

“The industry needs to embrace its planetary responsibilities but also needs to ensure its own future success so industry performance is a key component of a sustainability agenda,” said Glyn Hughes, global head of cargo, IATA.

Hughes laid stress on programmes such as Cargo iQ, Digital Cargo, Smart Facility and the overall cargo standards activity that seek to ensure the industry can optimise its processes to operate as efficiently as possible.  This efficiency translates into reduced environmental impacts and a more sustainable industry. According to him, IATA’s programmes of excellence, such as the Center of Excellence for Independent Validators (CEIV) Pharma, Fresh and Live animals all certify entities operating to the highest level of industry quality.  This reduces food wastage and protects the care of the precious creatures being transported by air.

Another important industry body The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA) is uniting the stakeholders around common sustainability goals and a common action plan, bringing awareness and creating a greater sense of urgency in terms of sustainability, promoting best-in-class examples, and calling for innovations to achieve its goals.

“Many TIACA members, in all parts of the chain, have already integrated sustainability into their strategy. It is not a PR exercise for them, but a strong commitment to improve their operations and eliminate waste, reduce their environmental impacts, do better for their employees and act for their communities,” said Steven Polmans, chairman of TIACA and also the head of cargo and logistics at The Brussels Airport Company. 

“Working with Brussels Airport, we have taken sustainability very seriously and we have not only a plan but also the strong support of our senior management, a team in place and budgets allocated to make it happen. Different company, different region, and different focus, but sustainability is also key in Astral Aviation’s strategy. For both Sanjeev Gadhia (CEO, Astral Aviation) and I, it is engrained in our DNA and it was only natural for us when we took up the chairmanship and vice-chairmanship of the Association to make it a priority for TIACA,” Polmans added.

Very recently, TIACA launched a dedicated sustainability programme during the TIACA Executive Summit in Budapest (November 19-21, 2019). The programme is currently in a work-in-progress mode and will be defined in the coming weeks through the newly established Sustainability Working Group (the first session took place in Budapest) and based on feedback from the Board, its trustees, the industry and its partners.

“The aim is obviously to help companies to take steps in the right direction. Achieving this goal will require strong communication from our side regarding a range of topics, including tracking progress and sharing best practices, industry achievements and individual successes. On that topic, TIACA has already implemented this approach with the Sustainability Award, which allows us to share inspiring sustainability projects with the whole industry and to give an award to the most relevant of these,” he said. Wings for Aid bagged the maiden TIACA Sustainability Award this year for its self-landing cardboard box to bridge the last mile in humanitarian crises.

Spelling out the case for sustainability
While industry bodies are spearheading missions on sustainability and reducing carbon emissions, individual stakeholders are also working on their own initiatives to achieve sustainability. Air France KLM Cargo has integrated sustainability in its business and operations since years, which resulted in the 15th consecutive year that the airline has been in the top three of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. 

“We strive to contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that lie within the scope of our influence,” said Frederik van de Ven, program lead sustainability at Air France KLM Martinair Cargo.

This, according to Frederik, is translated to four main challenges on a daily basis: (i) reducing its environmental footprint by optimising operations, innovating with the supply chain and involving all staff and the entire industry; (ii) taking into account the challenges of sustainable development throughout the service chain in order to offer customers innovative and responsible products and services; (iii) promoting responsible social policy and encouraging personal development to guarantee the motivation and professionalism of employees; (iv) contributing to the economic and social development of the territories where the airline is present.

Elaborating on the initiatives that the airline’s sustainability team is currently working on, Frederik revealed, “To mention a few (initiatives), we are renewing our fleet by ones that are more efficient, we use lightweight nets and pallets, and fly shorter routes. For CO2 emissions on the ground, we work towards replacing all ground handling equipment for alternative electric ones. But that’s not enough, that’s why we are exploring alternatives. At the moment, the use of sustainable kerosene is having the greatest impact, compared to conventional fuel it can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 80 percent. We recently announced our commitment to the development of the first EU plant for sustainable kerosene. From 2022 onwards, it will produce around 100,000 tonnes of sustainable fuel.”

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The Flying-V is an aircraft design that promises 20 percent fuel savings compared to the Airbus A350–thanks to the laws of physics. That’s the main reason why Franco-Dutch airline Air France-KLM is funding the development of this concept. 

For global air services provider dnata, choosing green or hybrid options is a prime consideration in its Ground Support Equipment (GSE) fleet planning. “To support the industry on the ground, we invest in the most modern, eco-efficient ground equipment possible. We also operate our assets in the most environmentally responsible manner, and in compliance with all local applicable environment regulations and standards. Furthermore, we develop and implement specific policies relating to energy, waste management and minimisation, as well as ground transport,” disclosed Nicola O’Hara, environment manager, dnata.

Over the past years, dnata has replaced a large number of its ramp vehicles, GSE and forklifts, with hybrid or electric alternatives, while refurbishing selected GSE where appropriate to extend life-cycles, decrease engine emissions, reduce waste and update them to the latest safety and quality standards.

Specifically, dnata is focussing its efforts on reducing its carbon footprint and minimising waste. “Our fleet of electric forklifts help us to reduce emissions from our operation as well as improving indoor air quality in our warehouses. Cargo operations generate substantial quantities of packaging material waste and we have been putting significant effort into diverting what we can from landfill. We have a cardboard and wood recycling programme, we redistribute reusable materials such as wood pallets to other areas of operation rather them sending them to landfill and we’ve implemented and plastic recovery and reuse programme in part of our operation,” she added.

Recently, global logistics company FM Logistic released its first sustainable impact report, detailing the impact of the company’s activities on the economy, society and the environment. Covering areas such as jobs, workplace health and safety, education, greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, the report also describes the measures taken by FM Logistic to contribute to a more sustainable supply chain.

“Financial indicators are not enough to create a true picture of the performance of supply chains,” said Charlotte Migne, sustainable development director at FM Logistic. “By measuring the positive and negative effects of our activities on the environment and society, we wish to give our customers, employees and contractors the information they need to make decisions. This is a step towards sustainable logistics.” FM Logistic’s sustainable programme, which was formalised in 2018, is built on three pillars: care for employees, the reduction of the company’s environmental footprint and the development of sustainable service offerings. 

Meanwhile, DSV Panalpina recently announced that it will set science-based environmental performance targets from 2020, demonstrating its support towards minimising the effects of climate change. The organisation scheduled an announcement for early next year, which will outline its targets for the future and are aimed at limiting global warming to 1.5°C. The targets will serve as a baseline for the company’s future sustainability efforts, both for the company’s direct and indirect emissions, including subcontracted transports.

Making every employee a sustainability champion
Sustainability is not just being green. It is of course acting in a way that is good for the planet, but it also includes dimensions linked to people and prosperity. Therefore, industry players and industry bodies are embedding sustainability by acting on employee initiatives. “On the people front, we identified the need for the industry to attract, develop and retain the next generation of industry leaders as well as providing an environment for continual development of all employees.  The industry also needs to ensure that equal opportunities exist for all members of society in an open inclusive community,” said IATA’s Glyn Hughes.

Specific IATA programmes and initiatives include the Future Air Cargo Executive (FACE) programme which is open to all air cargo / logistical employees under 35 and provides a specific summit for this next generation as part of the annual IATA World Cargo Symposium.  IATA also promotes similar such next-gen programmes established by other organisations within the supply chain. Adjunct to that, IATA runs the FACE UP contest every two years which provides a platform for recent graduates to showcase their research expertise and their passion for the industry through a program which employs an independent jury to select three outstanding applicants who then present themselves and their research thesis to the World Cargo Symposium audience. IATA has also expanded its portfolio of training programmes to include soft skills and further education programmes to compliment the already well developed portfolio of technical training availability. To promote equal gender opportunities and highlight the industry’s commitment to women in leadership, IATA has launched a programme called 25 by 25.  A voluntary programme which has thus far received significant support from IATA and member airlines established industry goals relating to achieving at least 25 percent of women in senior leadership positions by 2025.  

For TIACA, while the first and obvious priority is raising awareness about sustainability and its importance for our future, it also gives equal importance to people and prosperity. “We define sustainability as 3+2: people, planet, prosperity + partnerships & innovation. And for each element, there are a number of urgent tasks: reducing carbon footprints, attracting, retaining and developing the younger generation of air cargo employees, improving processes and efficiencies, etc,” explains Polmans.

As the air cargo sector marshals its efforts to turn green and more sustainable, transparency around sustainability practices in supply chains is gaining importance. “The desire to be truly sustainable also requires changing the way we think – this implies for the whole supply chain of air transport. And that, in turn, means that airline companies need each other as well, because when it comes to sustainability we should no longer see each other as competitors but as colleagues. Therefore, it is important that stakeholders in our sector intensify cooperation and exchange best practices. Only by working collectively can the air transport sector make major strides forward in terms of sustainability,” concluded AFKLM Cargo’s Frederik. 

This feature was originally published in STAT Trade Times' December 2019 issue.