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We talk about the future of aviation with Teresa Parejo, Head of Sustainability at Iberia

Iberia is the number-two airline in the world for the reduction of CO2 emissions on long-haul flights. How is an accomplishment like this achieved?
Some time ago, Iberia decided to do away with its less efficient aircraft, A340s: four-engine airplanes that used more fuel. That decision and others that have been reinforced in recent years have made it possible for our operational efficiency to be successful, measured in grammes of CO2 per passenger. But we’re not satisfied with that alone. We know that this is a process of ongoing renovation and that the challenges we face are enormous. They will require an intellectual and economic effort to be made by the company, so we remain tremendously committed to the final goal, which is the decarbonisation of aviation.

Is it possible to achieve net-zero emissions in 2050 within this process?
Yes, it’s a goal that all companies and governments have taken on at the international level. This is established by international treaties and the European Green Deal, which has a regulatory package that will affect us directly from 2025. It’s meant to limit the increase of the average global temperature to 1.5 degrees at the end of this century and thus prevent the worst effects of climate change. It’s more complex for aviation than for other industries – which can bring electricity to their business activities by linking them to renewable energies – but it is our goal.

How do you describe the company’s strategy from your perspective?
The Sustainability Department was created in late 2019, although there was already work being done on different initiatives. After the phase of changes in priority due to the pandemic was over, the strategy was strengthened and was organised in a way that involved all of Iberia’s areas of activity and its three companies: airline, maintenance and handling. The strategy is consistent and in line with the company’s goal of “generating prosperity by connecting people with the world,” which is built on four pillars: the environment, our customers, our employees and our commitment to the future.

Was the renewal of the fleet essential for the first pillar, the environment?
Yes, renewing the fleet was, but so was improving operational efficiency. We’ve implemented several initiatives, including measuring and reducing the weight of our aircraft, the processes of digitisation, market momentum for sustainable aviation fuels and improving how we manage our waste.

Until very recently, aviation and sustainability were two incompatible concepts for a lot of people. Does communication remain a challenge?
Practically right up to the pandemic it seemed as if there was some kind of planetary plot against aviation. But, beyond the fact that simplified messages cannot explain or solve complex problems, I think that the sector is also partly to blame because, for a long time, it hasn’t known how to communicate. Now, we’re giving a lot of importance to explaining what we’re doing and what the future of fuels is, because the core of the issue here is the fossil fuels used by engines.

And what will that future be?
The media and the government talk a lot about electrification for land transport and cities. This is fundamental and possible and can even be done by 2030. There is also a lot of talk about green hydrogen for transport and other industries. But green hydrogen will not be the solution for aviation in the short and medium term. We are researching this technology in partnerships with Airbus and energy companies to analyse how it might be developed. However, before that – even in 2050 – what we call ‘sustainable aviation fuels’ (SAFs) will prevail. Unlike green hydrogen, these can be used in the same aircraft, with the current engines and with the same airport infrastructure. Airbus is also working on creating aircraft that will operate with green hydrogen and hopes to have one ready by 2035. But it will take time until this is implemented throughout the fleet and infrastructure.

What exactly are these sustainable fuels composed of?
They’re made from different kinds of raw materials that can come from biomass or be of synthetic origin. There are already ten to 12 technologies of each kind that are certified for use in the current engines in different maximum mixing percentages, depending on their energy performances. Those of biomass origin may be made from cooking oils, waste from other oils and waste from the forestry industry, agri-food and even cities. This also aims to solve one of the big urban challenges. Synthetic fuels are made from processes that can use hydrogen and capture CO2 from the atmosphere to transform it. They may even generate negative emissions.

Iberia, along with Repsol and Cepsa, has already operated flights with biofuel, such as the inaugural flight to Dallas and the first flight returning to San Francisco.
Yes, but being able to use them on all our flights is not a reality yet. There is a minimal quantity available on the market and the price is up to five times that of conventional fuel. We’re trying to support the producers – Cepsa and Repsol – and we’ve made strategic agreements with them to begin the process. They’re sustainable not only because of the raw materials, but also in terms of their life cycle. From the time they are extracted until the total emissions of their life cycle are used, they are up to 80 per cent lower and, since they are produced locally, they also generate new quality jobs.

Just as the pandemic changed priorities and damaged the trend towards sustainability, has the current situation with the war in Ukraine, price increases and energy dependence on Russia accelerated them?
Clearly, yes. The regulation is being pushed forward. The European Union – the most advanced region in the world in this matter – is creating new standards more quickly and effectively so that commitments become reality as soon as possible and so that the economic system and not just aviation is transformed towards one that is more environmentally and socially sustainable, one that will allow the transition to me done more fairly. The transformation is already a reality.

Has the Iberia Chair for the Decarbonisation of Air Transport – which the company created, together with the Polytechnic University of Madrid – allowed Iberia to be an actor in this new reality?
Besides the fact that it is a big commitment to the research and development of new ideas aimed at the decarbonisation of the industry, the Iberia Chair looks for the improvements that our business activity can bring to society. It explains our commitment to the upcoming generations and supports research and future researchers - our young people - while seeking tools we can use to measure our impact on society.

Digitisation, the electrification of land vehicles and managing waste are some of the actions that are not limited to just flights. How do you reach all of Iberia’s employees?
We carry out awareness-raising initiatives with them with regard to their own jobs, and we show the impact each one has on the initiatives being designed and on their repercussions. What’s more, our employees are critical in this sense, because they have contact with our customers, and that leads to the increased effectiveness of the strategy.

And what role do customers play?
They are key to the sustainability – even the financial sustainability – of our company. Society is undergoing a transformation and our customers are increasingly well-informed. They want a more customised experience that is digital in many of the processes. They are aware that they themselves generate a carbon footprint and have their own responsibility to make this a more sustainable and inclusive world. The 2030 Agenda speaks not only about the fact that the policies developed must include us all; it also mentions the partnerships for the goals. We must all cooperate, and it requires each one to have a role to play. Companies have a greater responsibility, because their impact on society is much greater, but none of us can disregard our own responsibility.

Are there specific actions they can take?
The possibility to offset their carbon footprint – already available to our corporate customers – was the first step. Our CO2 calculator allows us to tell a customer what the footprint of their trip on a specific route with our fleet is. And we give them the opportunity to compensate for it through two completely certified projects. This assures them that what they are compensating for is absolutely real and translates into what it claims to be. There is a conservation project for the Guatemalan coast and another project for community forest management in Peru. Before the end of the year, non-corporate customers will also be able to offset their emissions at the end of the purchasing process.

Just as in other industries – from supermarkets to hotels – consumers make decisions based on sustainable policies (biodegradable materials, traceability, waste management, etc.). Do these values have an impact on the air transport industry?
Aviation is very price sensitive. It’s very competitive and, traditionally, customers choose the most economical price. The search engines themselves create hierarchies based on this value. But we’re finding – and there are already studies that support this – that customer behaviour is changing. Now there are search engines that make their lists based on emissions, on the efficiency in terms of emissions of companies and their flights. And we come out the winners. Sustainability has a price, even though customers are very aware and want their flights to be more sustainable. They’re willing to pay a bit more and this trend is becoming increasingly clear. A time will come when no airline will be able to fly unless it is sustainable.