In partnership with Scotland’s Futures Forum and the Edinburgh International Festival, the Scottish Parliament hosted its 19th Festival of Politics over three days from 9th – 11th August. The Festival featured events on politics, current affairs, social and environmental issues, offering Scots an opportunity to come to their Parliament and discuss some of the key issues facing society today.

‘Aviation and the sustainability agenda: to fly or not to fly?’ was one of the big topics for discussion at this year’s festival.

A panel consisting of Mike Robinson, Chief Executive of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society; Gordan Dewar, Chief Executive of Edinburgh Airport; Finlay Asher of Rolls-Royce and Charandeep Singh BEM, Deputy Chief Executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce discussed whether ‘fly shaming’ is obscuring the aviation industry’s drive and progress towards meeting net zero targets by 2045.

Charandeep Singh explained how connectivity is central to economic development, social experiences as well as fostering peace and prosperity between nations. From horses to cars, to ships, trains, and planes, we have all welcomed the invention and innovation of the global transport sector to allow us to meet, to learn, to trade, to celebrate and much more.

Aviation brings the world’s people and cultures together like no other form of transport but, above all, aviation is a critical enabler of trade and economic development with over a third of all trade by value being sent by air.

The aviation industry supports $3.5 trillion (4.1%) of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) so if aviation were a country, it would rank 17th in size by GDP which equates to the GDP of Indonesia and the Netherlands.

Although most of Scotland’s exports are transported by road, rail or ship, air freight is the only method of transport for our time sensitive exports. Aviation supports the sale of Scottish salmon overseas, a sector worth over £600million, making it the UK’s number one food export with France, China and USA being the top three of 54 countries importing Scottish salmon.

Whilst acknowledging the economic and social benefits of aviation, there are challenges which must be addressed around over-tourism, a global model for testing during a future potential pandemic, as well as the traditional safety and security concerns.

The industry has made significant progress in fuel and CO2 efficiency, a flight today generating only 50% of the CO2 compared to the same flight in 1990. The industry is working towards achieving its climate commitment to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Sustainability is the greatest challenge and opportunity facing travel and we must be ready to grasp the prospects of a greener industry collectively. Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) could be produced in Scotland and play a major role in the transition from carbon intensive oil and gas. Scotland could become a test bed for developing hydrogen and electric flight with 93 inhabited island communities potentially benefitting from island – hopping electric aircraft.

The importance of aviation is clear when the system stops working as it did during the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull Volcano in 2010 which suspended air traffic and gave us a glimpse into how modern-day life may be impacted without aviation. Around 10 million passengers were disrupted and over 100,00 flights cancelled across 5 weeks resulting in an estimated $1.6billion loss in global visitor spending. In the first week of the airspace shutdown, a total of $5billion lost GDP was recorded with international trade severely disrupted.

Perishable produce could not be saved which impacted on African flower and fruit producers with former World Bank president, Robert Zoellick, stating that African countries lost $65million. The Korea International Trade Association stated that losses for their domestic industries in a 4 day period were an estimated $112million with mobile phone and semi-conductor suppliers being hardest hit.

The aviation industry supports 87.7 million jobs globally and is expected to support 143 million jobs by 2038 and contribute $6.3 trillion to the global economy. It is however the 4th most polluting sector so to achieve Net-Zero by 2050 will require accelerated efficiency measures, energy transition and innovation across the aviation sector and in partnership with Governments around the world.

Scotland can contribute to finding a solution to aviation emission concerns by the urgent inclusion of a Scottish government goal around sustainable fuel and/or for Scottish based offsetting/ownership of airline carbon emissions in the aviation strategy. Clear strategies for linking aviation and net zero policy are vital and governments should work with industry to support the green recovery of the aviation sector.