GovCon Wire Events hosted its FAA: Climate Change Priorities Fireside Chat session Wednesday featuring keynote speaker Kevin Welsh, executive director of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Environment and Energy, who delivered exclusive insights to the virtual audience on how the aviation industry is tackling climate change through sustainability initiatives, environmentally-focused fuel alternatives and policy frameworks as the critical issue continues to pose significant threats around the world.
Independent journalist Miles O’Brien, aviation analyst for CNN and science correspondent for PBS NewsHour, moderated the in-depth conversation with Welsh on some of the most pressing, difficult-to-solve issues facing the aviation sector today in the context of climate change resilience, environmental justice and protection against an increasing number of extreme weather events.
After opening remarks and speaker introductions from SAIC’s Chief Climate Scientist Steve Ambrose, O’Brien and Welsh dove into the discussion and shed light on how FAA’s climate action plan aims to implement transformational change across the nation’s airports and facilities in alignment with the White House’s climate-focused initiatives.
“Experts believe that aviation contributes approximately two to three percent of CO2 emissions worldwide and in the United States,” shared Welsh as he set the stage for the current climate crisis and described the role aviation plays in it. O’Brien also noted that the aviation enterprise is responsible for 11 percent of the country’s transportation-related emissions.
Aside from CO2 however, Welsh noted that there exists a multitude of lesser known and less understood factors that are currently contributing to the climate emergency, including cirrus clouds induced by contrails, or condensation trails, from jets.
“Of course, these are short-lived climate impacts,” Welsh said of the temporary cloud formations. “But one of the biggest challenges is really understanding from a scientific perspective how big of an impact they have.”
Welsh highlighted the FAA’s Ascent Center of Excellence as a hub for sustainability in aviation and applauded their work to clear up the uncertainty around these cirrus clouds, understand their impact and develop ways to mitigate it.
Though the aviation industry is facing a host of environmental challenges, Welsh said it has also seen a trajectory of innovation and success in recent decades, notably in the area of fuel efficiency.
“While the system was carrying 89 percent more passengers in 2019 than in 1991, it was only burning 27 percent more fuel,” he shared. “The fleet has an average fuel efficiency of 57.5 passenger miles per gallon of fuel,” Welsh said, mentioning a drastic improvement of that figure from the mid-thirties in the 1990s.
However, the FAA’s overarching goal, as outlined in the agency’s Aviation Climate Action Plan, is not just improving fuel efficiency, but eventually reaching net-zero emissions in the coming decades.
According to Welsh, “The real challenge then is even with all this efficiency, how do we go beyond the track record that we have over the last three decades to actually bend the curve downward and get emissions going towards that net-zero 2050 goal?”
To hear the full conversation between FAA’s Kevin Welsh and journalist Miles O’Brien, visit the GovCon Wire Events page, where you can watch the FAA: Climate Change Priorities Fireside Chat on-demand now.
If you’re interested in learning more about climate change and its importance in the federal, commercial and GovCon sectors, join the How Climate Policy Can Drive Change event, hosted by our sister platform, the Potomac Officers Club, on Feb. 24.
SAIC’s Steve Ambrose will join representatives from academia, industry and government agencies in a timely discussion on creating robust climate policy frameworks to address urgent environmental issues as new challenges emerge.