Air cargo is a trade facilitator that contributes to local and international economic development and sustains millions of jobs. However, while aviation is a reliable, efficient and cost-effective air cargo transportation, it is also a carbon-intensive transport mode.
Reducing the carbon footprint and all environmental negative impacts caused by air cargo is the next biggest challenge the industry will face in the coming years and decades. Therefore we need to identify how to reduce our air cargo CO2 emissions in the most efficient way possible.
The shipping industry is responsible for around 940 million tonnes of CO2 annually, which is at least 2.5% of the world's total CO2 emissions. And as a whole, air cargo represents 2% of global carbon emissions.
Every year, over $6 trillion worth of goods are carried by air, accounting for approximately 35% of world trade by value. According to IATA data published before the pandemic, $18.6 billion of goods were shipped by air each day, transported by 100,000 flights, both passenger and cargo aircraft.
International shipping currently emits more than 0.9 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 each year, and that’s growing. Moreover, with passenger numbers predicted to double to 8.2 billion annually by 2037, the industry’s contribution to CO2 emissions is likely to grow significantly if left unchecked.
The Paris Agreement was signed in 2015 by the UN as a legally binding international treaty on climate change. It provides a framework for financial, technical and capacity-building support to those countries that need it.
This leads to CORSIA, which stands for Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation. This global scheme is designed to keep aviation CO2 emissions to 2020 levels by requiring airlines to offset any additional emissions growth.
Along with this scheme, Airlines of Member States are now required to:
CORSIA complements the element of carbon emissions reduction by offsetting the amount of CO2 emissions that cannot be reduced through the use of technological improvements, operational improvements, and sustainable aviation fuels with emissions units from the carbon market.
Then on October 4th 2021, IATA member airlines pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. This ‘Fly Net Zero’ commitment is done in line with the Paris agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 Celsius.
In the TIACA Air Cargo Sustainability Roadmap, we have identified eight actionable priorities to decarbonise air cargo:
SAF is produced from sustainable feedstocks and is very similar in chemistry to traditional fossil jet fuel. The use of SAF results in the reduction of carbon emissions compared to the use of traditional jet fuel.
It is typically made from:
Depending on the sustainable feedstock used and the production method, SAF gives an impressive reduction of up to 80% in carbon emissions over the lifecycle of the fuel compared to the traditional jet fuel it replaces.
SAF can be blended at up to 50% with traditional jet fuel and all quality tests are completed as per a traditional jet fuel. Any aircraft certified for using the current specification of jet fuel can use SAF.
However, SAF is currently more costly than traditional fossil jet fuel due to the current availability of sustainable feedstocks and the continuing development of new production technologies. That’s why governments need to create the right policies to accelerate the growth of SAF.
Air cargo fleets include all the traditional aircraft, trucks, and even drones. Using cleaner fleets will drastically reduce air cargo CO2 emissions. One of the popular actions is transitioning to electrically powered fleets.
The transition to electric vehicles (EVs) will play an important role in minimising the effects of climate change. Operationally, EVs have a lower cost of fuel per mile and significantly lower maintenance fees, while also being cleaner for the environment.
Other power source options such as solar, biofuels, and hydrogen are also counted as the lowest emission energy source feasible for air cargo businesses. However, transitions to EVs seem to make much more sense in the nearer future.
Integrating environmental aspects into constructions and buildings is essential in decarbonising air cargo. This includes transitioning airports’ cargo facilities, airport terminals, and even warehouses and offices.
In this day and age, there are many options for creating energy-efficient green buildings with ecological technologies. Here are some examples:
Offsetting is an action by a company or individual to compensate for their emissions by financing a reduction in emissions elsewhere. Such offsets can be sourced from various types of project activities, including wind energy, clean cooking stoves, methane capture, and other emission reduction projects.
For example, Cathay Pacific has introduced a carbon offset program for air freight, powered by a carbon emissions calculator. This tool will display the volume of emissions and the offset charge in local currency, calculated by weight, and aircraft type.
Cathay Pacific offset scheme currently supports projects that supply fuel-efficient cooking stoves to families in Bangladesh, solar-powered hot water to households in India, and solar-powered cooking stoves to families in China.
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is a way of reducing carbon emissions. It consists of three steps:
CCS is something that air cargo needs to thoroughly investigate and be ready to adopt when the resources and technology are available.
Designing better air cargo operations is also key to achieving sustainable aviation. Many air cargo operations are wasteful and inefficient, and the largest ones may have the carbon footprint of a small city. Therefore, the main idea is to eliminate unnecessary sources of CO2 emissions and reduce energy consumption.
There are many operations changes that can be done, which include changing flight operations, fleet maintenance, workforce commute, ULD built-up, and many more.
One simple example is changing flight route operations. This could include changing the altitude or position of a flight to avoid colder pockets of air, especially at times of the day or during seasons when the emissions will have the highest impact. Rerouting flights to avoid climatic regions which are particularly sensitive to the effects of non-CO2 emissions could lower their climate impact by a quarter, at a cost increase of just 0.5%.
Fuels burned to power vehicles such as aircraft and trucks are a large source of CO2 emissions in the air cargo industry. Whereas the use of SAFs might help the fuel problem, companies need to rethink the utilisation of vehicles for optimal use.
Some of the actions that can be done include:
Reducing the weight of vehicles and equipment, or adopting new, lighter ones are effective ways to reduce carbon emissions since less weight means less energy needed to move.
Another opportunity to decarbonise by reducing weight is to optimise the packaging: customising it to the goods transported with the right size and proper weight, without compromising the packaging efficiency to protect the goods and avoid wastage and damage.
The key outline of decarbonising air cargo—besides the eight steps mentioned above, is through measurement and continuous monitoring. This action is critical to understand the issue, set up improvement targets, monitor progress and concretely reduce CO2 emissions from the air cargo industry.
One way to do that is by using technology: data and artificial intelligence. This has been made possible by CargoAi who is on a mission to bring the best available technologies to airfreight.
CargoAi's Cargo2Zero profoundly changes the way clients source airfreight and drive sustainability metrics across their whole air procurement process.
CargoAi uses tracking data and real flight data to determine which aircraft type and exact routing the shipment flew. We then calculate CO2 emissions, based on the IATA Recommended Practice 1678 for CO2 Emissions Measurement Methodology and in line with the Global Logistics Emission Council (GLEC) framework. Using CargoAi helps you measure the CO2 emissions associated with your air cargo activities and start reducing them.
Through its solid business intelligence hub, CargoAi provides you also with the CO2 emitted from each shipment flown. Monthly CO2 emissions reports are also available to allow your company to analyse its own impact and monitor improvements.