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Welcome to FNEI Insights, a blog series where FNEI interviews thought leaders about issues informing sustainable and socially responsible business practices in a variety of industries. This month, we talked to Nathalie Errard, Senior Vice President, Head of EU and NATO Affairs at Airbus, about how the aviation industry is leveraging technology to achieve new levels of sustainability, what these efforts could mean for other industries, and strategies for getting key stakeholders to work together on global issues like climate change.

Nathalie Errard

What do you love most about your work with Airbus?

I love exchanging views and understanding what others are trying to achieve. It’s great to interface with different agendas, build bridges, and achieve something together.

Can you share an example of when you were able to achieve that type of achievement and collaboration?

There is no “overnight achievement.” Our job is to explain the strategy of the group and the specificities of our business on the one hand and the political priorities of the EU on the other hand.

The idea is to find solutions so that Airbus is able to act efficiently and the EU sees how industry can help shape its political agenda. For example, when the European aviation business builds its green aviation roadmap Destination 2050 or when the European Partnership for Clean Aviation sets up a research project with the EU, we create concrete solutions to political and industrial challenges with the EU stakeholders.

What is necessary in order to facilitate that level of cooperation among different stakeholders as it specifically relates to sustainability?

It is important to work internally first to understand and explain what is achievable. Then the overall ecosystem of aviation needs to come together to speak as one voice. By using facts and figures, and by reaching out to EU stakeholders and civil society, you can build trust and discuss decarbonization roadmaps and other concrete actions. It’s an inspiring process.

Tell us a little about the zero-emission concept plane from Airbus. Why do you think this next-generation technology represents the future of aviation, and even more so, the future of other industries working toward sustainability?

Through our ZEROe programme and our ambition to deliver a zero-emissions commercial jetliner by 2035, Airbus aims to drive green aviation and provide technical and industrial leadership for Europe on net-zero aviation globally. The benefits will cascade into national climate objectives and the development of technologies and capabilities in new sectors at national levels. This includes stimulating the development of national hydrogen ecosystems and, more broadly, in transforming global energy and transportation sectors. 

Green aviation will drive development and growth of Airbus capabilities and sites, but also the capabilities and prosperity of the multitude of suppliers and SMEs within the supply chain which will all benefit from these initiatives both economically and technically. The development of these technologies will also make European countries less dependent on fossil fuels and should make the EU more competitive against the U.S. and China’s aerospace industries, setting the new global standards for climate change targets.

What are some other ways Airbus, as well as the aviation industry at large, has leveraged technology and innovation to support its sustainability goals?

On February 11 of this year, the European aviation industry published Destination 2050 – A Route to Net Zero European Aviation, a report that demonstrates how a combination of four key measures could achieve substantial CO2 emission reductions in line with EU climate goals. These are through improvements in aircraft and engine technologies (including hydrogen aircraft), fleet renewal, using sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), and implementing economic measures and improvements in air traffic management (ATM) and aircraft operations.

To make the net zero vision for European aviation by 2050 a reality, while maintaining international competitiveness and aviation’s benefits to society, decisive joint actions by governments and industry will be needed. It will also need huge investments on both sides, as the decarbonization of aviation is a step change that requires very innovative technologies but also significant evolutions of the infrastructure, the renewal of the fleets, and the deployment of new fuels and new sources of energy.

Due to the severe financial crisis the aviation industry currently faces, we need a step-by-step plan that does not significantly burden airlines, airports, and manufacturers in the coming three to four years to allow for a full recovery, to build resilience, and then to allow the sector to invest in this sustainable transition. 

For aircraft manufacturers, there is no “magic spell” or universal remedy when it comes to decarbonizing the skies. Airbus has been improving the environmental footprint of its aircraft over the past decades and will continue to improve the current generation through incremental innovation. The renewal of our fleet is a very important lever of our decarbonization roadmap. In addition, SAF is a solution of critical importance when it comes to reducing our industry’s CO2 footprint because it is one of the most promising carbon-reduction options for wide-body/long-haul aircraft. 

What are some of the key challenges and opportunities for Airbus under the European Green Deal, and how are you addressing those challenges and opportunities?

We are living through a major transformation that is going to shape the future of aviation. Opportunities lie in innovation and technology so that the next generation can continue to fly in a more sustainable way. The challenges are both technological — we need once again to be pioneers for a new way to fly — and cultural. Optimism and willingness to invest are key conditions of success. We need to convince society to believe and invest in sustainable aviation through global solutions since aviation is a global business.

How can companies like Airbus be strategic partners in response to changing government policies and regulations and unlock new opportunities in technology and innovation that help address climate change?  

I think companies like Airbus can explain the reality of the industry, explain the opportunities and challenges, push the technological boundaries, and help different stakeholders converge to global solutions.

From a thought leadership perspective, what do you think is next for the aviation industry in terms of technology, innovation, and sustainability?  

By developing the technologies that will determine the production, distribution, and construction of the necessary infrastructure in areas such as Sustainable Aviation Fuels and Green H2, we will have the opportunity to define the future of aviation 20 years from now.

We are equally convinced, however, that the aviation industry’s lofty sustainability targets cannot be achieved with our existing aircraft technologies. This is why we at Airbus have been accelerating our commitment to developing, building, and testing alternative propulsion systems based on renewable energy as we pursue our zero-emission ambition.

To truly reap the benefits of zero-emissions technologies, we will need to mobilize key actors across the oil and gas industry, the energy sector, certification and regulatory bodies (ICAO, ATAG), as well as airlines, engine suppliers, and many others across our ecosystem.

Do you think aviation will lead the way for other industries? 

Each industry has its own cycle and specificities. Aerospace and defense have always been at the cutting edge of technology innovation because flying is forcing you to innovate in the 3rd dimension — the sky! The aviation industry will continue to innovate and transform itself by investing in disruptive technologies in the sustainable and digital areas. For sure they will have cross-fertilization effects elsewhere.