climate change

ICAO Agrees 2050 Net-Zero Target for Aviation

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Last week's formal adoption of net zero by the UN's aviation body should help spur more governments into action on sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and other measures desperately needed to decarbonize air travel.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) finally agreed its new long-term aspirational goal (LTAG) to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 late last Friday. The LTAG replaces ICAO’s earlier targets of carbon-neutral growth from 2020 and a 50% cut in aviation carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2050. It brings the UN body in line with existing airline industry commitments, and net-zero promises made by an already-growing number of countries.

“Countries have achieved some tremendous and very important diplomatic progress at this event, and on topics of crucial importance to the future sustainability of our planet and the air transport system which serves and connects its populations,” declared ICAO Secretary-General Juan Carlos Salazar at the end of the 41st ICAO Assembly in Montreal. Agreement by more than 2,500 delegates from 184 countries and 57 organizations came late Friday after two weeks of intensive diplomacy and almost a decade of negotiations. The vote was nearly unanimous with only China and Russia registering “reservations.”

ICAO also agreed on tweaks to Corsia [its carbon offsetting and reduction scheme for international aviation], including a new lower baseline of 85% of 2019 emissions, as well as broad measures to support the development of SAF. SAF is aviation’s main decarbonization tool and likely to be used to mitigate up to two-thirds of industry emissions by 2050. Corsia’s original average 2019-20 emissions baseline was abandoned during the pandemic while the replacement 2019-only baseline was criticized for being too lenient.

Not a Minute to Lose

"There is lots of work to do, and not a minute to lose," said International Air Transport Association (IATA) Director-General Willie Walsh immediately after the vote. “By the next [ICAO] Assembly the aspirational characterization of LTAG must be transformed into a firm goal with a clear plan of action,” he urged.

“That means governments must work with industry to implement an effective global policy framework capable of attracting the financial resources needed to put aviation on an unstoppable track to achieve net zero by 2050” said Walsh. IATA’s airline membership agreed its own 2050 net-zero target a year ago and is eyeing 2030 as a tipping point for the SAF industry. ICAO’s next assembly is in 2025.

Air Transport Action Group’s Executive Director Haldane Dodd agreed on the need for action. “Setting a goal is one thing. Making it a reality is where the hard work really begins,” he said. “We now need individual governments to start working on their own policy environments to complement [the UN framework] … many states will need help … and the energy industry will need to get serious about the buildup of SAF,” Dodd added.

IATA’s Walsh put the cost of decarbonizing air travel in the trillions of dollars and urged governments to stick with Corsia as the only global economic mechanism to decarbonize international air travel. “It is more critical than ever that governments do not chip away at the cement which bonds Corsia. States must now honor, support and defend Corsia against any proliferation of economic measures," he said. IATA has criticized the EU’s Fit for 55 plans to tax fossil jet and extend its emissions trading scheme to flights outside of the bloc.

Environmental Backlash

Green groups were far less complimentary. “Let’s not pretend that a nonbinding goal will get aviation down to zero,” said Transport & Environment’s Aviation Director Jo Dardenne. “If countries and industry are serious about this aspirational goal, they should stop bullying the EU out of its plans to finally price emissions from departing flights,” she added.

Brussels-based T&E also criticized the 85% baseline as being still too lax after new research found just 22% of airline emissions would now be covered by Corsia legislation in 2030. Major aviation markets in China, Russia, Brazil and India won’t be part of the still-voluntary scheme by that date, while domestic air travel is completely excluded from the UN initiative.

Meanwhile T&E argues that the price of offsets remains far too low to provide any real incentive for airlines to actually decarbonize by using SAF under Corsia. Offsets work out at barely €1.70 per passenger on a flight from Europe to the US compared to the €280-€300 per passenger cost of using SAF on the same flight.

Biofuels (incl. SAF), Low-Carbon Policy, CO2 Emissions
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