19 October 2021

GreenAir News

Reporting on aviation and the environment

IATA AGM passes resolution committing global airline industry to net zero emissions by 2050 despite Chinese opposition

At its 77th Annual General Meeting in Boston, IATA approved a resolution committing the global airline industry to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, which it says will align with the Paris 1.5C climate goal. The industry is projecting 10 billion people will be flying in 2050, requiring the abatement of at least 1.8 gigatons of CO2 in that year, about twice the amount emitted by the sector in pre-pandemic 2019. The net zero commitment implies a cumulative total of 21.2 gigatons of carbon will be abated between now and 2050, said IATA. Director General Willie Walsh said “a very significant” $2 trillion investment by the industry will be required out to 2050, needing an aviation-wide collective effort backed by supportive government policy. All industry stakeholders, including governments, must each individually take responsibility to address the environmental impact of their policies, products and activities, demanded IATA. However, the resolution was not supported by the Chinese airline members of IATA, which said their government had a different national target and an attempt to insert a reference in the resolution to UN climate principles was rejected. Walsh told a press conference afterwards that the resolution was binding on all members.

“The world’s airlines have taken a momentous decision to ensure that flying is sustainable,” said Walsh after the resolution was passed. “The post-Covid-19 re-connect will be on a clear path towards net zero. That will ensure the freedom of future generations to sustainably explore, learn, trade, build markets, appreciate cultures and connect with people the world over. With the collective efforts of the entire value chain and supportive government policies, aviation will achieve net zero emissions by 2050.”

The path to the net zero by 2050 goal – which replaces the 2009 industry target of halving global net emissions by 2050 compared to 2005 – relies heavily on the use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). IATA’s base scenario envisages 65% of the forecasted business-as-usual 1.8 gigatons of carbon will be abated through SAF. IATA expects the current annual use of around 100 million litres of SAF to increase to 449 billion litres in 2050.

“We would expect new propulsion technology, such as hydrogen, to take care of another 13% and efficiency improvements will account for a further 3%. The remainder could be dealt with through carbon capture and storage (11%) and offsets (8%),” said Walsh. “The actual split, and the trajectory to get there, will depend on what solutions are the most cost-effective at any particular time. Whatever the ultimate path to net zero will be, it is absolutely true that the only way to get there will be with the value chain and governments playing their role.”

The IATA resolution demands all industry stakeholders commit to addressing their environmental impact and policies “with concrete actions and clear timelines”, including:

  • Fuel-producing companies bringing large scale, cost-competitive SAF to the market;
  • Governments and air navigation service providers (ANSPs) eliminating inefficiencies in air traffic management and airspace infrastructure;
  • Aircraft and engine manufacturers producing radically more efficient airframe and propulsion technologies; and
  • Airport operators providing the needed infrastructure to supply SAF, at cost, and in a cost-effective manner.

Subject to progress reviews of the most cost-efficient technology available, IATA’s base scenario foresees the following timelines:

  • 2025: With appropriate government policy support, SAF production is expected to reach 7.9 billion litres (2% of total fuel requirement).
  • 2030: SAF production is 23 billion litres (5.2% of total fuel requirement) and ANSPs have fully implemented the ICAO Aviation System Block Upgrades and regional programmes such as the Single European Sky.
  • 2035: SAF production is 91 billion litres (17% of total fuel requirement) and electric and/or hydrogen aircraft for the regional market (50-100 seats, 30-90 minute flights) become available.
  • 2040: SAF production is 229 billion litres (39% of total fuel requirement) and hydrogen aircraft for the short-haul market (100-150 seats, 45-120 minute flights) become available.
  • 2045: SAF production is 346 billion litres (54% of total fuel requirement).
  • 2050: SAF production reaches 449 billion litres (65% of total fuel requirement).

“SAF will fuel the majority of aviation’s global emissions mitigation in 2050,” stated Walsh. “The recently announced US Grand Challenge to increase the supply of SAF to 11 billion litres (3 billion gallons) by 2030 is a great example of the kinds of policies that will drive aviation sustainability. Similarly, the announcements from several big energy suppliers that they intend to produce billions of extra litres of SAF in the near term are welcome. But we cannot tolerate announcements with no follow-up. To be meaningful, fuel suppliers must be accountable for delivering SAF at cost competitive prices.”

Governments too must support the energy transition through “a holistic policy framework focused on realising cost-effective solutions” and SAF production incentives to increase supply and lower costs, said IATA.

“They must be active partners in achieving net zero by 2050,” said Walsh. “As with all other successful energy transitions, government policies have set the course and blazed a trail towards success. The costs and investment risks are too high otherwise. The focus must be on reducing carbon. 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. Incentives are the proven way forward. They solve the problem, create jobs and grow prosperity.”

The resolution also calls on governments to agree a long-term goal through ICAO that is equivalent to the industry’s net zero by 2050 commitment. Robin Hayes, JetBlue CEO and Chair of IATA’s Board of Governors, told airline delegates at the AGM before the resolution’s adoption that climate change will be top of the agenda at next year’s ICAO Assembly.

“We cannot afford to go into the Assembly without a clear commitment as an industry to address our carbon footprint,” he said. “We are urging the AGM to adopt this resolution as a critical step towards ensuring our licence to operate over the coming decades.”

Responding online, representatives from Chinese carriers said the resolution should respect the challenges faced by airlines in developing countries and the principles of global climate governance, namely that of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Walsh told delegates that the Chinese carriers had backed the net zero goal but the year 2050 was inconsistent with the objectives of the Chinese government, which has set 2060 as its target. “We were encouraged to consider amending our proposal to 2060 but the view of the Board of Governors was that this amendment was not acceptable.”

The resolution, which also calls for governments to support CORSIA and avoid implementing regional, national or local measures, was formally adopted without further objections.

Next year’s AGM will be held in Shanghai, China, on June 19-21, and hosted by China Eastern Airlines.