This year is particularly important for aviation’s climate action. At the end of September, representatives of the world’s governments will convene at the 39th International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Assembly to enter into final negotiations on a global scheme for offsetting aviation CO2 emissions. If they agree on a measure, as we in the industry have consistently urged, commercial aviation will be the first sector to deploy such a global market mechanism.

But this will not signal the end of our climate action checklist. And it is not the beginning, either. Aviation has always had a focus on efficiency. Today’s modern aircraft are over 80% more fuel efficient than the first jets. A flight taken today will produce roughly half the emissions that the same flight would have in 1990. Initially, this drive toward greater fuel efficiency was purely driven by economics, as airlines strived to cut fuel consumption. This is still important, but now we have another incentive: reducing our CO2 emissions.

We know this challenge cannot be approached on an individual basis. All sectors of aviation (airlines, airports, manufacturers and air traffic management) must work together to make real environmental progress. This is why industry leaders from these sectors came together in 2008 to announce a set of three global goals aimed at reducing CO2 emissions in the short, medium and long terms. These goals will be achieved through a four-pillar strategy of technology, operational efficiencies, infrastructure improvements and a global market-based measure. There is no silver bullet. All opportunities must be explored.

The first of these goals is to achieve an average annual fleetwide fuel efficiency improvement of 1.5% between 2009 and 2020. We are more than meeting this goal, with the average annual efficiency improvement of 2.4%. 

The second goal is to realize carbon-neutral growth from 2020 on, the subject of this year’s negotiations at the ICAO Assembly. The industry has been working hard to engage with governments to ensure that an agreement is reached at the meeting, and we are confident that governments will heed this call. 

The third goal looks further to the future. We aim to halve overall CO2 emissions by 2050, when compared to 2005 levels. The industry will achieve this goal mainly through technological developments. Each generation of aircraft is, on average, 20% more fuel efficient than the one it replaces and, every year, manufacturers spend an average of $15 billion on efficiency-related R&D. Indeed, we now have the first CO2 emissions standard for new aircraft; the agreement was reached during an ICAO meeting this past February  and, again, is supported by the industry.

Included, within the technology pillar of aviation’s strategy is the development and commercialization of sustainable alternative fuels. These fuels can be dropped into existing supplies as they become available. They do not require new equipment and can be up to 80% more fuel-efficient. They can be synthesized from a range of sustainable sources, from used cooking oil and municipal waste to forestry residue and algae. A number of airlines have operated commercial flights using sustainable alternative fuels and two major airports, Los Angeles and Oslo, have regular supplies of the fuel on-site. By the end of 2016, over 5,500 flights using these fuels will have been made.

Some claim that the only solution to aviation’s climate challenge is to restrict flights and reduce connectivity. Aviation supports 62.7 million jobs and $2.7 trillion in global GDP. We transport a third of the world’s trade by value and half of all international tourists. More importantly, we help to connect people, families, businesses and communities in our global economy. To restrict demand through higher prices means cutting off this connectivity and going back to the days when only the rich could fly.

To do so would be an affront to small exporting businesses and rising middle classes around the developing world who rightfully aspire to travel and to see the world. We must find a way to balance our growth as a transport mode with the need to reduce the environmental burden this creates. This balance is exactly why we developed the global climate goals the way we did—and why we are pushing governments so hard to reach agreement on a global offsetting scheme for aviation at the ICAO assembly this year.

Here, then, is the delicate line between two responsibilities that the industry treads: the responsibility to protect the environment and the responsibility to help the global community enjoy growth and prosperity and create opportunity. No one said it would be easy, but it is possible.

Michael Gill is the executive director of the Air Transport Action Group. His views are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.