#SRI — 15.10.2020

A more sustainable plane thanks to the train?

Weakened by the coronavirus crisis, the aviation sector faces immense challenges. The rationalisation of environmental and economic costs will require mixed transport.


  • The coronavirus crisis hit the already fragile aviation sector hard
  • Aircraft manufacturers want to reduce emissions by 50%
  • But in practice, the sector's CO2 emissions continue to rise
  • In the absence of medium term solutions, it is time for a transportation mix also including train
  • Environmental impact, social impact and economic cost must be priorities

On 4 March 2020, ten days before the confinement began, Flybe was forced to stop its flights. The largest regional airline in the UK was suffering from structural difficulties in the sector, exacerbated by the pandemic. At the height of the crisis, activity contracted by 90%. In an eminently cyclical sector, aviation is also responsible for 6% of positive radiative forcing, i.e. factors that disrupt the earth's energy balance and cause its warming. Innovation processes are particularly lengthy. Will aviation be able to reinvent itself in time? What will tomorrow's plane look like?

Increase in issuance

In 2019, the seven main aircraft manufacturers committed to reducing their CO2 emissions by 50% between 2005 and 2050. This commitment remains largely insufficient. The sector is one of the few with increasing emissions. In its May report on sustainable aviation issues, the NGO The Shift Project made two observations. First, the sector continues to grow on a high carbon model. Secondly, the scope for technical progress on aircraft is now very small. In response to these findings, The Shift Project offers a number of solutions, including energy efficiency research. It has already slowed the growth of emissions in recent years.

To achieve its environmental objectives, the sector is studying alternative energies such as electricity, hydrogen and biofuel.

Solutions too far away

In order to achieve its environmental objectives, the sector is studying alternative energies (electricity, hydrogen, biofuels). It is also interested in clearing mechanisms. The CORSIA programme aims to cap the sector's net issuance at 2020 levels.

But none of these solutions still allows the sector to ensure its environmental and economic sustainability. The first green aircrafts are not expected until 2050.

For many NGOs, therefore, it is time for  transportation mix including both airplanes and trains. The airlines and the railways could be brought together at airports, transformed into hubs of mobility. Several countries, including France, are considering banning domestic flights if the train journey lasts less than 4 hours and 30 minutes.

The industry employs 400,000 people in Europe, but many airlines have based their model on social dumping.

Social and environmental practices

Another key feature of the aviation sector is its social footprint. It employs 400,000 people in Europe. Many airlines, however, have based their model on social dumping. They have contributed to the development of mass tourism that reflects neither its economic nor its actual environmental cost. Moreover, air transportation remains accessible, at best, to less than 20% of the world's population. Rationalize the real environmental and economic costs of travel, and better integrate them into the overall issue  of mobility. These are the sector's priorities for the coming years.                                                                                       


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