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Global aviation industry sets 2050 net zero target

The 193 countries that form the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), have pledged to support an "aspirational" goal that would see the sector achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Members of the United Nations' aviation agency have reached a "historic agreement" on a collective long-term aspirational goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.  

Although not legally binding, the move brings countries into line with the goals of the aviation industry in making air travel more sustainable and reaching net zero by the middle of the century.

“States’ adoption of this new long-term goal for decarbonised air transport, following the similar commitments from industry groups, will contribute importantly to the green innovation and implementation momentum, which must be accelerated over the coming decades to ultimately achieve emissions-free powered flight,” said Salvatore Sciacchitano, president of the ICAO Council. 

UK Transport Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan described the vote as "a historic milestone, not just for the future of flying, but for the wider international commitment to achieve net zero." 

"It's an excellent result," a diplomatic source told AFP, revealing that only four countries - including China - "had expressed reservations."


 The agreement is expected to “rely on the combined effect” of multiple CO2 reduction measures, including the development of new types of aircraft technology, streamlined flight operations and the increased production and deployment of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs).

SAFs are typically derived by combining jet fuel with alternatives such as bio-fuels or recycled oils from industrial food facilities.

“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,” added ICAO secretary general Juan Carlos Salazar.

ICAO has also agreed that airlines will use the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). Under this scheme, airlines would agree to a baseline year and all future emissions above the level of that period would have to be offset.

The threshold has now been set as 85 per cent of 2019 carbon emissions. 

States also agreed to back ICAO’s work to help accelerate the availability and use of SAFs, with a conference on aviation and alternative fuels set to be held next year.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said airlines were "strongly encouraged" by the adoption of the climate goal, which comes one year after the organisation endorsed the same position at its own general meeting.

“The significance of the LTAG agreement cannot be underestimated, " said Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general. "The aviation industry’s commitment to achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 requires supportive government policies. 

“The global determination to decarbonise aviation that underpins this agreement must follow the delegates home and lead to practical policy actions enabling all states to support the industry in the rapid progress that it is determined to make.”

Europe’s Destination 2050 group, which includes Airports Council International Europe (ACI Europe), Airlines for Europe (A4E) and European Regions Airline Association (ERA), came out in strong support of the ICAO agreement.

“Aviation, as a global enterprise, needs climate policies that ensure harmonised approaches for all stakeholders and to be met by commensurate actions across all regions,” said Destination 2050 in a statement.

"The global aviation community welcomes this landmark agreement," said Luis Felipe de Oliveira, the head of Airports Council International, which represents 1,950 airports in 185 countries.

"This is a watershed moment in the effort to decarbonise the aviation sector with both governments and industry now heading in the same direction, with a common policy framework," he said in a statement.

Despite the praise, some activists have argued that the measures are not enough to curb the emissions of the industry, which contributes around 2.5 per cent of global carbon emissions. In addition, 50 per cent of airline emissions come from the one per cent of travellers who fly the most, according to a 2018 study. 

Moreover, the current guidelines are only recommendations and are not yet legally binding. 

"This is not the aviation's Paris agreement moment. Let's not pretend that a non-binding goal will get aviation down to zero," said Jo Dardenne of NGO Transport & Environment.

"The only way we're going to solve it is to stop burning kerosene. The way that you stop burning kerosene is by pricing kerosene more effectively and investing in alternative solutions."

The ICAO general meeting was the first since the start of the pandemic, which greatly affected the aviation industry. In 2021 the number of airline passengers was only half the 4.5 billion in 2019, marking a small rebound from the 60 per cent year-over-year drop in 2020.

The UK was one of the first countries to include curbing aviation emissions in their climate targets in 2021 and helped launch the International Aviation Climate Ambition Coalition at COP26. That same year, British Airways sourced SAF to cover the requirements for all its flights between London, Glasgow and Edinburgh during the COP26 climate conference in October.

In May, a new institute for developing clean, safe and sustainable air travel was created by Imperial College London, to support the industry's journey to net zero. 

According to airlines, it will require investments of $1.5bn between 2021 and 2050 to decarbonise the sector.


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