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UN Aviation Body ICAO Agrees on ‘Net Zero’ Target

Jonathan Packroff / Sean Goulding Carroll

October 13, 2022.

Representatives of 184 states at the United Nations body for civil aviation agreed on an “aspirational” goal of net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050, a target which will heavily rely on offsetting measures outside the sector.

As emissions produced by international aviation are not assignable to individual countries, they are not covered by national commitments under the Paris climate agreement, instead being handled by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

ICAO member states have now endorsed a “global aspirational goal” to reach “net-zero carbon emissions” by 2050 at a two-week conference in Montréal, Canada, closing on Friday (7 October). Thereby, the sector will massively rely on so-called offsetting, meaning they will finance emissions reductions outside the aviation industry to compensate for those of flights.

Compensate emissions

The adoption of the target comes one year after most of the global aviation industry, represented by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), itself committed to “net zero” by 2050.

The reliance on compensating emissions by both industry as well as the UN was criticised by environmentalists, who argued that it does not incentivise airlines to develop technological solutions for climate-neutral flights, such as synthetic fuels, nor does it make flying much more expensive.

For a flight from Europe to the United States, only €1.70 would be added to the ticket price by 2030 due to the costs for offsetting certificates, the environmental NGO Transport & Environment (T&E) calculated.

Meanwhile, actual emissions of international aviation might even rise further. In an ICAO report on how to reach the “aspirational goal”, a scenario representing the current pace of technological and policy development predicts an increase to 954 mega tons (Mt) of CO2 in 2050, almost double the 500 Mt of 2019.

The most ambitious scenario sees emissions cut down to 200 Mt CO2 by 2050, mostly due to the use of biofuels and synthetic fuels.

“Aspirational” goal

Nevertheless, IATA welcomed the target as an “important step forward” and called on governments to subsidise the development of green jet fuels. In the next three years, the aspirational goal “must be transformed into a firm goal with a clear plan of action”, IATA’s Director General Willie Walsh said in a statement.

Environmentalists disagree to the industry’s cheering. “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, aviation director at T&E in Brussels.

In T&E’s view, the EU should instead take a lead by requiring all departing flights to pay a carbon price under its emissions trading system (ETS). This would make them more expensive and subject to a total upper limit on emissions, something not accounted for in the ICAO’s global instrument.

© Jonathan Packroff / Euractiv News
Image - Kevan James

Sean Goulding Carroll

Is aviation ready to take its head from the clouds?

When it comes to maintaining a healthy weight, there is little more alluring than the idea of a magic pill; the notion that you can simply pop a tablet once or twice a day and watch the kilos melt away. No diet, no exercise, and no need to alter the actions that made you overweight in the first place.

The desire to achieve better results without any change is, of course, human. Who doesn’t want to sit on the couch eating ice cream and wake up with six-pack abs? But diet pills don’t work. Improvement requires a new way of approaching old habits. There is no solution that does not require some level of transformation.

Apparently, the exception to this rule is if you want to cut aviation emissions. In that case, you can carry on and pay someone else to take care of that pesky carbon problem for you.

Over the past two weeks, the great and good of the global aviation industry gathered in Montréal, Canada, to discuss the future at the UN’s ICAO Assembly. Following the two-week conference, member states emerged with an impressive announcement: aviation will reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050. Unfortunately, the announcement lacks specifics on how the lofty goal will be reached. It is also an “aspirational” goal rather than something binding.

The usual solutions to reducing the impact of aviation were mentioned in broad strokes, such as the introduction of clean aircraft (likely to be unsuitable for the most polluting long-distance flights for decades to come) and the ramp-up of sustainable aviation fuels (currently available in minute quantities). Reaching net zero will, for now, primarily rely on an offsetting system designed to cover the growth in the sector’s carbon footprint, called CORSIA.

CORSIA requires polluters to pay for emissions over a certain baseline, which will then go towards offsetting schemes, such as growing new forests or ramping up wind energy. In theory, this will help to even out the carbon toll of flying.

But theory is not the same as practice. If those carbon-absorbing trees are caught in a forest fire, for example, the stored-up carbon is released, rendering the offset worthless.

The idea that someone else, in some far-flung land, will balance out your bad behaviour is a wonderful notion. For example, you could drive a gas-guzzler to the local shop and it would be fine because someone in Peru will hop on their bicycle instead.

But in reality, there is no substitute for the difficult changes needed and to meet the demands of the climate crisis, more stringent measures must be enacted at a global level. In short, we cannot expect the frugality of others to make up for our consumption.

However, at least in some quarters, there is hope that the ICAO announcement will give increased impetus to national governments to take the lead in greening flying.

© Sean Goulding Carroll 2022.


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