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Global airlines commit to net zero CO2 emissions by 2050

Global airlines have committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, an ambitious challenge for the heavily polluting industry as it begins to recover from the crisis caused by Covid-19.

The target was agreed by members of the International Air Transport Association on Monday, and came as the industry faced growing pressure to take new action to cut its emissions.

Aviation, which accounts for roughly 2 per cent of global emissions, is one of the most difficult industries to decarbonise, and Iata admitted the target was a significant challenge.

“Decarbonising the airline industry is a real challenge because we don’t have a clear solution in the short term,” said Iata director-general Willie Walsh. “But we do believe very strongly . . . there is a credible path to net zero.” 

The industry’s road map relies on 65 per cent of emission reductions coming from sustainable aviation fuel, which is significantly less polluting than traditional jet kerosene, but currently in very short supply.

Sebastian Mikosz, Iata’s senior vice-president for the environment, said the industry needed 450bn litres annually of sustainable fuel, but only 100m litres was currently available.

The target volume of 450bn litres is equivalent to about 7.8m barrels a day of demand. World jet fuel and kerosene demand was 7.9m b/d before the pandemic in 2019, according to the International Energy Agency.

The plan also includes future and unproven new technologies, including electric and hydrogen aircraft. Any remaining emissions could be mopped up by carbon capture or offsetting, Iata said.

In a sign of concern that governments could take action including environmental taxes if airlines did not decarbonise faster, Walsh urged countries to help carriers achieve net zero emissions, rather than punish them for flying.

“Limiting flying with retrograde and punitive taxes would stifle investment and could limit flying to the wealthy. And we have never seen an environment tax actually fund carbon-reducing activities,” said the former British Airways boss.

He added that the aircraft makers Boeing and Airbus were “not doing enough” to develop new technology to reduce emissions, and that any carrier that did not commit to reducing its carbon footprint “will be measured by consumers”. 

Robin Hayes, chief executive of US carrier JetBlue, said that, unlike safety, airlines would compete on their commitment to lowering pollution levels.

“We all want the same thing,” he said. “Are we going to compete to get there? Hell yes . . . If that gets us to achieve this goal quicker, I think that is a very good thing.”

The net zero target faced opposition from Chinese airlines, which wanted to delay the commitment to 2060, reflecting the difficulty in persuading developing nations to agree to climate targets that could hinder an expected surge in demand for flying in the coming decades.

Walsh said European airlines, in particular, were already facing pressure to accelerate to net zero before 2050, and had pushed back against China’s proposal.

“Moving it to 2060 would not be a position they would accept,” he added.

Transport & Environment, a climate lobby group, said airlines should scrap offsetting schemes and focus on mandatory targets for clean fuels and face fuel and carbon taxes.

The climate targets come as the industry prepares for a painful recovery from the pandemic over the coming years.

On Monday Iata forecast global airlines will lose a further $11.6bn next year, down from an expected $52bn in 2021 and $137.7bn in 2020.

Buoyed by a significant domestic market, the US industry is the only region expected to return to profit in 2022.

“We are well past the deepest point of the crisis. While serious issues remain, the path to recovery is coming into view,” Walsh said.

Additional reporting by Derek Brower in New York

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Global airlines commit to net zero CO2 emissions by 2050

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