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| 3 minutes read

“Safe Sustainability”: Learning From Aviation

The commercial aviation industry has long since drawn the envy and admiration of others for its approach in dealing with safety risks - so much so, that operators in other safety-critical sectors have often sought to benchmark themselves against aviation. Some operators in other sectors have gone so far as to adopt practices which have their origins in aviation, such as Safety Management Systems (“SMS”), when developing their own strategies for managing risks.

It is, therefore, unsurprising that the International Civil Aviation Organization (“ICAO”) is seeking to lead the way in addressing how the industry adapts to the challenges posed by climate change and the issue of “trade-offs” between the safety risks associated with new technologies (i.e. those required to deliver the industry’s transition to net zero) and the benefits of these technologies.

Ahead of ICAO’s triennial assembly meeting next month, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and the Flight Safety Foundation have published a working paper[1] which expands on some of these issues under the descriptor “safe sustainability”.

It is not difficult to pick out the read-across for operators and regulators in other hard-to-abate sectors which also share a low tolerance for safety risks (e.g. petrochemicals, heavy manufacturing and construction). There is also a need for these sectors to develop “trade-off” criteria to provide clarity to innovators and inform the decision-making of regulators in balancing the potential advantages in approving new emissions reduction technologies against the costs of an increase in the likelihood of safety incidents.   

The ICAO working paper identifies four pressures which can affect aviation safety:

  • direct pressures on the sector to reduce carbon emissions (e.g. Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (“CORSIA”)[2]) ;
  • indirect pressures originating from whole of economy initiatives (e.g. the Climate Change Act 2008[3]) or those which are external to the sector;
  • direct pressures originating from the challenges of climate change, such as an increase in adverse weather events; and
  • direct pressures to manage localised environmental impacts of the sector (e.g. the impact of aircraft noise on sensitive receptors[4]).

It is notable that the working paper does not make a recommendation for a particular formulaic methodology for calculating the “weight” to apportion to benefits which may arise from a new emission reduction technology when balancing this against the likelihood of an increase in risk. Following precedent, it is unlikely that ICAO will go down a path of mandating that member states adhere to a strictly prescribed approach. Rather, it is more likely that national aviation regulators will be afforded discretion in developing their own trade-off criteria which promotes innovation and gives due regard to safety and/or operational concerns and environmental challenges.

This approach could also be used as a template for other sectors facing similar challenges in responding to pressure(s) to adapt to climate change and ultimately decarbonise. In such cases, regulators will also need to get comfortable with trade-offs. This transition and the process in decision-making itself could be eased by the introduction of industry-specific trade-off criteria.

Any criteria will need to include an analysis of how safety in an industry or sector could be impacted by each of the “four pressures”. Through consultation with stakeholders, existing approaches to managing safety risks could be reviewed and considered as to whether, and the extent to which, current industry practices for risk management are able to accommodate new emissions reduction technologies. Where new safety management practices are required and are reasonably practicable, appropriate resource should be afforded to this. If, however, there are no alternatives available and trade-offs are required, regulators should publish criteria so that operators and innovators can understand what will constitute acceptable risk in the development and operationalisation of new emissions reduction technologies.

Work to date on developing trade off criteria across hard-to-abate sectors has been relatively slow. Whilst it is encouraging that the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (“HSE”) has pledged, as part of its strategic objectives, to “enable industry to innovate” and “support…the move towards net zero[5] no additional sector-specific criteria has been published. There is now an increasing need for clear sectoral guidance on “safe sustainability” and risk management. Without this additional clarity, long held attitudes around safety risk could stymie innovation and lead to a failure to develop the much-needed decarbonisation technologies required to deliver significant emissions reductions across hard-to-abate sectors.

[1] Working Paper - Regulatory safety assessment and cooperation for safe sustainability

[2] ICAO - Resolution A40-19 CORSIA

[3] Climate Change Act 2008

[4] Air Navigation Guidance (ANG) 2017

[5] Protecting people and places: HSE strategy 2022 to 2032


climate tech, risk, decarbonisation, sustainability