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‘One of society’s biggest challenges’: How the Aviation Impact Accelerator is pushing the aviation sector towards net zero

‘One of society’s biggest challenges’: How the Aviation Impact Accelerator is pushing the aviation sector towards net zero.

Dame Polly Courtice was Founder-Director of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and one of the founders of the Aviation Impact Accelerator.

‘Our enemy is time. Achieving an aviation sector with no climate impact is one of society’s biggest challenges. Solving it will require a complex combination of technology, business, human behaviour and policy.’

Rob Miller, Director, University of Cambridge Whittle Laboratory

February 2020 quietly marked the launch of an ambitious new academic industry approach for the aviation sector. In the UK, HRH the Prince of Wales hosted a series of roundtables through his Sustainable Markets Initiative, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum. Bringing together a wide range of aviation players, from airports and airlines to airframe manufactures and the financial community, these meetings aimed at finding breakthrough solutions to achieve climate neutral aviation.

HRH convening a roundtable meeting on aviation in Clarence House

This forum proved extremely revealing of a wider issue in the sector. Many of its stakeholders, although united in their aim to reduce the climate impact of aviation, found that they were talking past each other, only focused on their sections of the aviation sector.

The discussions brought to the fore the consequences of the key characteristics of the industry: it is stable, safe, ultra-regulated and highly siloed. Although these are in many ways its strengths, together these factors render the sector hard to change. The dawn of climate change is now forcing a radical rethink of the key systems within different industries, from agriculture to energy. Without consensus and collaboration, supported by policy makers and the financial sector, the aviation industry will fail to rise to the challenge of climate neutrality in this time of global change.

According to recent estimates, the global aviation industry contributes to roughly 2-3% of worldwide annual CO2 emissions. Although this may seem like a relatively small number, consider that if the sector was a country, it would produce the world’s sixth highest CO2 emissions. Moreover, once non-CO2 emissions are considered, the true climate impact of aviation could be 2-5 times larger.

Currently, global air traffic is predicted to double by 2037. The UK government recently estimated that the Asia-Pacific region will be the source of more than half of new air travellers by 2037, with China, Indonesia, India and Thailand compromising four of the five fastest growing sources of passengers.

The problem is substantial and time limited, and demand is growing. Industry players are highly specialised, only truly understanding their own mature technologies and operating processes, with limited sight of the whole picture. Meanwhile policy makers, the financial community and other stakeholders are increasingly being asked to make judgements about the best routes forward for the industry while much of the technology options remain uncertain. There is an urgent need for evidence-led, whole systems and accessible tools which allow stakeholders to examine the problem in the round, explore possible pathways and make informed decisions.

What has the Aviation Impact Accelerator achieved so far?

The Aviation Impact Accelerate (AIA) emerged out of these roundtables. Its aim is to accelerate the transition to climate neutral flight, bringing together multi-disciplinary expertise to develop evidence-based models, simulations and visualisations that allow stakeholders to build, understand and embark on the pathways to sustainable flight. The initiative is led by the University of Cambridge and involves an international group of academics and practitioners.

The AIA team have built their first holistic model which was previewed at COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021. The tool is designed to be used by a wide variety of users, from an engaged school pupil to an engineer, and allows users to iterate instantly between different possible policy directions.

The launch of the AIA at COP26, Glasgow, November 2021

The journey simulator aims to provide an assessment of the impact of different technology options and their uncertainties, rather than providing ‘an answer’ to the problem. For example, it will show the climate impacts of flying from A to B, based on a set of choices made by the user.

An example result from the draft simulator

The AIA is also using its models to contribute to the Target True Zero (TTZ) coalition, led by the World Economic Forum and supported by knowledge partners McKinsey & Company, the Aviation Environment Federation, and the AIA. TTZ was formed to bring together leaders from across the aviation industry and develop a consensus on how new technologies such as hydrogen and battery electric aircraft can help deliver flying with a true zero climate impact.

Industrial collaboration with the AIA

A key strength of the AIA is the wide span of industry, academic and convening organisations engaging on the project and contributing multi-disciplinary expertise. The AIA currently has a team of over 60 contributors and has gained input from over 80 different companies in the aviation sector and beyond. Engaging on the project is an opportunity to support an initiative with the ambitious aim to accelerate change globally while also getting the opportunity to explore uncertainty, opportunities, and challenges.

If you are interested in engaging on the project, please contact

Aviation Impact Accelerator launch collaborators


Author: Dame Polly Courtice DBE, LVO

About Author: Polly was Founder-Director of the University of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (1989-2021). She was the Founder-Director of The Prince of Wales’s Business & Sustainability Programme, and served as Academic Director of the University’s Master of Studies in Sustainability Leadership. She is a Fellow of Churchill College and an Honorary Fellow of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge. She was a Founder of the Aviation Impact Accelerator and is now on the project steering committee.




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