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Environmental preparedness of aviation

Aviation industry has set the goal to achieve global net zero CO2 emission level by 2050. But where is the aviation right now on the way to the final net zero target?


Heini Noronen-Juhola

Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 13.12.2023

McKinsey has published in November 2023 a sector process tracker for the net zero transition. The aim of the tracker is to measure the progress and the preparedness of ten key sectors on the path to achieving global net zero emission targets. All sectors have set the goal to 2050. Together the sectors were responsible for about 80 % of the global greenhouse emissions in 2019. Aviation is one of the ten sectors in the study; the others are power, road transportation, maritime transportation, oil and gas, steel, cement, buildings, agriculture and forestry. (Engel et al. 2023.)

The worrying outcome of the study is that the global net zero transition is lagging behind and there is a risk that it might fall even further behind. Among the sectors studied, aviation is one of the least advanced in the transition. The technology innovation is the strongest aspect in all the ten sectors. However, more financing for this would be beneficial. The weak part is generally the economic and the societal adjustments as well as the governance.

How to improve the environmentally sustainable transition of the aviation sector?

McKinsey suggests for the improvement of the lower scores huge and concerted effort, particularly related to supply chain scale-up, capital allocation, and citizen and consumer support (Engel et al. 2023).

For the aviation sector this might mean especially the willingness to invest more in sustainable solutions like sustainable aviation fuel, with the outcome of reduced profits. This is not a popular solution among any of the ten sectors, but aviation is one of the least successful in this sense.

All the ten sectors have challenges with commitment and collaboration among leaders as well as citizen and consumer support (Engel et al. 2023). Nobody wants to end up being the one that pays the bill and typically the end user gets the role.

A systemic change is necessary

The systemic transition happens usually over time or because of big pressure from somewhere. For the aviation sector there is no time; the climate change is proceeding fast. The unwillingness to cover the costs for the existing sustainable solutions is lagging the transition. There are challenges with the availability of the sustainable aviation fuel, but there is room for additional usage.

Various press releases on how sustainable aviation fuel has been used at some specific flights underline the fact that the real interest to use sustainable aviation fuel in a bigger scale could be better. One day there will be synthetic aviation fuels and electric aircrafts, but getting these into wider commercial use takes some time.

The big pressure from somewhere could come from the regulation or the end users. In aviation the end users are the passengers and the air cargo shippers. The end users are aware of the environmental impacts but they are also interested in the costs. Increasing end user costs for the environmental reasons is a delicate matter, since it might reduce the interest to use the air transportation services. Therefore in aviation the big pressure should come from the regulation.

Let’s get aviation back on track

The aviation sector needs stronger environmental programmes than what CORSIA can provide (Traficom 2022). Offsetting should be more expensive than what it currently is, as it is too easy to focus at offsetting instead of investing in sustainable solutions.

There should be more sticks and carrots throughout the aviation sector to support the environmentally sustainable transition. The whole aviation ecosystem should work together to provide timely and accurate standards for sustainable solutions to support each other’s business.

Because aviation is so profit driven, let’s use regulation, restrictions and incentives in the form of business tools to make environmental sustainability a business case that can not be rejected. Let’s get aviation back on track. Let’s make money talk.

The author teaches international aviation business as senior lecturer at both Haaga-Helia and ChongQing technical university.


Engel, H., Krishnan, M., Samandari, H., Tai, H., Pacthod, D., Khural, S. and Murphy. M. 2023. A sector progress tracker for the net-zero transition. McKinsey Sustainability.

Editing: Marianne Wegmüller

Picture: Shutterstock