The airline industry’s global trade group will propose eliminating carbon emissions on a net basis by 2050, as pressure builds to improve the climate goals of a segment that’s come under increasing criticism for its use of fossil fuels.
The International Air Transport Association will ask carriers to adopt the target at its annual meeting in Boston in October, Willie Walsh, its director-general, said in an interview Thursday.
While airlines including British Airways owner IAG, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines Holding have all made net-zero commitments, IATA hasn’t updated its own target since 2009. At that time, airlines pledged to cut CO2 output 50 per cent by mid-century, compared with 2005 levels. But emissions have surged since then, driven by a boom in air travel that was only cut short last year by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m very confident that the industry will align with the changed goals,” Walsh said. “But we do have to go through the formal process.”
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Aviation has come under a harsher spotlight as industries such as automotive manufacturing make strides toward cutting emissions in line with goals set by the Paris Agreement. Before the pandemic, so-called flight-shaming prompted movements to limit air travel and switch to trains, for example.
Walsh argues that while there’s little that carriers can do on their own, there’s a credible path if governments, oil companies and planemakers pitch in to do their share.
“It’s unacceptable that others in the wider aviation industry just look to airlines to write the big check,” he said. “We don’t build the aircraft or produce the fuel or run the air traffic services.”
One challenge in decarbonising aviation is the difficulty of getting planes airborne with alternative fuels.
IATA intends to hold planemaker Airbus SE to a pledge to produce a hydrogen-fueled aircraft by 2035 and said the model needs to have the size comparable to the top-selling A320 narrow-body – carrying 150 people – and a range of at least 1000km.
Governments and oil companies should also increase investment in sustainable aviation fuels, seen as key to cutting emissions over the next decade, and European countries must come together to form a single air-traffic control area that would optimize routes and cut CO2 at a stroke, he said.
The 2015 Paris Agreement committed almost 200 countries to stabilise global warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial levels, with a stretch target of 1.5 degrees Celsius. It also calls for all man-made emissions to fall to net-zero during the second half of this century.
However, aviation as an industry wasn’t specifically covered, and targets were left to individual countries.
Aviation industry CO2 emissions reached about 915 million metric tons in 2019, according to Air Transport Action Group, an industry group focused on environmental issues.
Based on 2005 levels, IATA’s current target is for carriers to reduce carbon emissions to 325 million metric tons by 2050. Walsh said achieving net-zero would represent only an incremental change, given the direction already set in 2009.
Walsh spoke in a wide-ranging interview. Other points he addressed:
– Industry comeback: Walsh is slightly more optimistic than current IATA estimate for a US$48 billion industry loss for 2021. The second half looks better for Europe given pace of vaccine rollouts, but transatlantic routes are reopening slower than expected. He sees the US opening to European visitors “probably during July".
– UK government “haven’t done anything specific to the airline industry. So I wouldn’t be optimistic about them doing anything going forward”.
– Mideast super-hubs still “very important” and will have higher relevance post-pandemic — becoming more valuable while fewer direct flights are available.
– Sceptical that flying taxis can become a viable business, but not dismissing them.
– China is “very credible future player” in aircraft manufacturing and “clearly have the determination to get there”; coming Comac C919 probably won’t see much demand outside domestic market.
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