November 15th, 2016


Sustainability Director, San Francisco International Airport

President and CEO, Fulcrum BioEnergy, Inc.

Director of Environmental Strategy, Boeing Commercial Airplanes

International Counsel, Environmental Defense Fund


The outcome of this year’s presidential election has thrown recent climate progress into question.  Donald Trump has made his views on climate change clear, and has already pledged to exit the 2015 Paris agreement. A separate UN agreement, reached in Montréal earlier this year, is designed to curb carbon pollution from international plane flights.  The aviation industry and 191 countries are on board. But what happens if the new administration doesn't clear it for takeoff?

“The important thing about the aviation agreement,” says Annie Petsonk of the Environmental Defense Fund, “is that it’s got broad support from across the industry and it’s got strong support from civil society organizations.” This means that it’s less likely the aviation deal will be dependent on a friendly administration.

Rather than imposing government regulations, she explains, the changes will be industry-driven; it’s up to each airline to determine how it will comply with emissions reduction standards.

”They can do it by flying cleaner aircraft, they can do it by working with governments to get air traffic control to be better so that planes can fly, takeoffs and landings more efficiently and they don't have to spend so much time circling.  They can use alternative fuels…And they can offset their emissions by investing in emission reduction opportunities within the aviation sector.”

“With that flexibility in mind, we’re hopeful that the new administration coming in will embrace this agreement and not reject it.”

“We actually sought this,” says Sean Newsum, Boeing’s Director of Environmental Strategy.  “It’s something that we supported; it’s something that we still support.  And the change in the administration isn’t going to change our industry stance towards wanting to have that in place.  

“It's one of the pillars of our environmental strategy.  And as far as we're concerned, we’re planning to move forward on implementing that standard.”

One major change for airlines could be an increased reliance on biofuels.  James Macius of Fulcrum BioEnergy says it’s not just concern for the environment driving that shift. “The aviation industry is absolutely determined to get to sustainability in their business,” Macius reports.  “They are absolutely convinced that it's critical to their success to be competitive in a very competitive environment; to have a sustainable business with a lower carbon input.  

“This is beyond any government input.  This is beyond regulations.  They see it as a matter of survival, and they’re willing to get involved.”  

And in fact, the government may be leading the charge away from fossil fuels. “The military is also convinced they need alternative fuels for their fleets and their operations,” says Macius. “So it's bigger than any single president or administration.”

There is no time to lose, Petsonk warns. “The growth in this industry that’s forecast is so great that it could prevent the world from achieving the Paris goals” of stabilizing the earth’s temperature.  To put the situation in context, she adds that "Boeing forecasts about 30,000 new large aircraft taking to the skies in the coming decades.  That's a lot of planes producing a lot of greenhouse gas emissions and adding to the blanket of warming chemicals in our atmosphere.”

But will Trump’s views on climate change spill over into the aviation industry?  By and large, the panel was hopeful that the president-elect’s business acumen could very well trump his tendency to dismiss global warming.

Trump is a builder, says Erin Cooke, Director of Sustainability for San Francisco International Airport.  “I mean, his platform was about building bridges …and we also know that he is driven and motivated by economic performance.”

Cooke believes that California’s record of showing opportunity through investment in green, clean, high-quality jobs, along with the business risks climate change poses for our infrastructure, will go a long way toward convincing The Donald to support the new aviation standards.  

Despite the vitriolic turn of the recent election, job creation is one issue that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on.  Annie Petsonk, who grew up in a manufacturing town in Pennsylvania, believes that fighting climate change presents great opportunity in that area.

“The aviation industry is a cornucopia of technology innovation,” says Petsonk. “And by starting with aviation as a template for tackling climate change, I think we can generate technologies that can put people in towns like my hometown back to work making those air aircraft components and technology components…We can do it and we need to do it.  We need to do it to protect the climate and to put people back to work.”

Adjusting to a new administration, says Macius, is just one of the things businesses have to take in stride. “Administrations come and go; presidents come and go,” says Macius. “You can't run a business that has a strategy that's focused on a certain government direction or policy.”

The voluntary requirements are set to kick in in the year 2020. In the meantime, what can we as travel consumers do to lessen our carbon footprint? While we’re not likely to alter our vacation plans, we can make our voices heard by those who put the planes in the air.

“Make smart choices,” Newsum urges. “Travel when you want to go, where you want to go.  But make smart choices about when you do that.” And let those in the industry know that green air travel is important to you.

“Don’t hesitate to tell them that sustainability counts,” agrees Petsonk. “Especially if they are the CEO of an airline -- or the incoming CEO of the nation.”

Related Links:

First deal to curb aviation emissions agreed in landmark UN accord (The Guardian)

What could happen if Trump pulls out of the Paris agreement (Business Insider)

Tufts University: Air Travel Sustainability

Suzuki Foundation: Air Travel and Climate Change

SFO: Sustainability Reports and Guidelines

This program was made possible by support from ClimateWorks Foundation.