4 February 2023

GreenAir News

Reporting on aviation and the environment

Reaching net zero by 2050 is going to be very challenging and very expensive, says IATA chief

Climate is the most important issue facing the aviation industry, despite having gone through a very deep and prolonged crisis caused by the Covid pandemic, IATA Director General Willie Walsh told journalists at IATA’s annual end-of-year media event. Getting to its net zero emissions by 2050 target is going to be very challenging and very expensive, and will clearly add to the operating costs of airlines, he said. However, an upbeat Walsh said the alignment with governments following the “very positive” outcome at the recent ICAO Assembly on an agreement of a long-term aspirational goal (LTAG) for the sector would accelerate policy action and the industry was “absolutely determined” to reach the target. IATA estimates jet fuel consumption of 73 billion gallons in 2022, down from its 2019 pre-Covid peak of 95 billion gallons but predicts a rise to 80 billion gallons in 2023. From a peak of 915 million tonnes of CO2 emitted by the industry in 2019, emissions are estimated to reach around 760 MtCO2 next year. The industry body is expecting a full rebound of passenger numbers by 2024.

Walsh said there were already signs of increased operating costs related with the transition to net zero, which will start to grow faster from 2024. “There are those who think we can get to net zero at zero cost but I don’t agree with that. We have to be honest with people – consumers are ultimately going to have to bear that cost,” he said. “Yes, this will have an impact on demand but we have factored this into our growth plans.”

He said the LTAG agreement was a significant achievement that should not be underestimated given the different levels of ambition on climate change among countries. However, while establishing emissions targets was important, “we now need to turn this into concrete action on how we can get as an industry from where we are today to net zero and work with governments and regulators around the world to align our interests.”

Also agreed at the Assembly was a change to the CORSIA baseline to 85% of international aviation emissions in 2019. Walsh said governments at ICAO had concluded that keeping the baseline at the 2019 level would not have shown sufficient ambition and it was significant that there was still significant international support for the scheme in tackling emissions from the sector.

“The idea that CORSIA is the solution is misleading though but it is part of the solution and we have always recognised that,” he said. “We now have to ensure the system works as it was intended. It runs out in 2035 and there will clearly be a need for action beyond then and I expect there to be a debate around CORSIA in the years to come.”

Walsh is fully aware of the apprehensions about carbon offsetting. “It’s fair to say that earlier offsets were questionable as to whether they were achieving any positive environmental impact and it’s understandable why people have challenged the value of offsetting. However, the auditing and quality control around CORSIA appears top class, with strict criteria that must be followed before offsets are eligible under the scheme,” he said.

“From an airline industry point of view, that’s very important to us because we’re going to be spending billions supporting this scheme. We want to ensure that the money we’re spending will achieve the objective and whether offsetting under CORSIA has a genuine and positive impact.”

The transition to net zero will rely substantially on the widespread availability of sustainable aviation fuels. Capital expenditure on SAF production facilities is estimated by the industry at up to $1.45 trillion over 30 years and will make up most of the incremental costs to getting to net zero. IATA estimates SAF production rose from around 100 million litres (80,000 tonnes) in 2021 to between 300 to 450 million litres in 2022. However, this is still only 0.1% to 0.15% of total jet consumption, when the industry target is 65% by 2050, or around 360 million tonnes (450 billion litres) of SAF. A tipping point of 24 million tonnes of SAF is required by 2030, says IATA.

“The ramp up in SAF has to happen between now and 2030, which will need the support of the suppliers and governments with the right policies,” said Hemant Mistry, IATA’s Director Energy Transition, during a briefing.

While the SAF production volumes are low, they were moving in the right direction, said Walsh, who wants further evidence in 2023 to show increasing production. “We want to see not just new entrants into the SAF market but also traditional fuel suppliers to the airline industry making a real commitment to SAF production,” he said. “I have heard these companies talk about this for years but I’ve not seen much action.”

Similar words were also directed to European governments over ATC inefficiencies. “We’ve been talking about this for years and years,” said Walsh. “The environmental impact of the Single European Sky is so important – we could reduce emissions by at least 10%. The technology exists and airlines have already made the investment to ensure aircraft are equipped. We need political will to address this issue. Quite honestly, it’s a scandal. The same politicians who lecture us about improving our environmental performance are not taking responsibility for changes they could influence.”

Walsh recognises that although the industry is now aligned with the climate aims of the Paris Agreement, the science could alter during the period up to 2050. “That leaves us with the possibility of having to change our net zero target, which we’re open to doing, and it’s important we’re willing to engage in understanding what is going on to progress the science, particularly in relation to the non-CO2 impacts from aviation.”

Net zero in 2050 should not be the end, he said. “There’s got to be further action beyond then – zero emissions aviation has to be the ambition. That’s why I see nascent technology, such as around hydrogen, is going to play a very big part as we move into the next stage. The advances we have already seen in technology are phenomenal and will continue.

“We’re not saying we will get to net zero by some magic that will appear 10 years from now. We are basing our pathway on known and proven technologies that exist today that we know can be scaled up to make the transition.

“I am very positive about the industry’s commitment to the environment, especially when I look at what airlines have been doing over the last few years during the Covid crisis, such as purchasing SAF, investing in carbon capture and new technology aircraft, and measures to improve operational performance. These are all critical developments.”