(Bloomberg)—The airline industry’s main lobby group adopted a target of eliminating carbon emissions on a net basis by 2050, a goal that will require balancing the fight against climate change with the need to spur demand in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Current airline targets aren’t ambitious enough, International Air Transport Association Director General Willie Walsh said at the group’s annual meeting in Boston on Monday. At the same time, he said the industry will need help to bear the estimated $2 trillion cost of transitioning from fossil-derived jet fuel.
“For aviation, net zero is a bold, audacious commitment,” Walsh said. “But it is also necessary.”
Airlines are under pressure to make quick progress toward lower emissions even though breakthrough technology like hydrogen-powered planes is years away. While automakers and the power industry have made tangible progress in becoming more green, aviation’s extended development timelines and safety prerogatives mean change has been slower.
Some carriers have committed to moving more quickly, but the alternatives are limited: so-called sustainable aviation fuel is expensive and still scarce, while purchasing carbon offsets has been criticized as ineffective.
The resolution, backed by Deutsche Lufthansa AG, faced some criticism from Chinese carriers, which are committed to a separate timetable of achieving net-zero emissions by 2060.
Saudi Arabian Airlines Director General Ibrahim Al-Omar also said that efforts to tackle the aviation industry’s carbon footprint shouldn’t be focused solely on so-called sustainable technologies.
China Southern Airlines Co. proposed an amendment to take account of different national time-lines, but failed to garner support for the proposal. Still, while Walsh said IATA’s policy is now to attain net-zero by 2050, he acknowledged that individual carriers can ultimately set their own targets.
IATA’s update is the first since 2009. At that time, airlines pledged to cut CO2 output 50% by mid-century, though a subsequent boom in air travel saw emissions surge until the onset of the coronavirus.
British Airways owner IAG SA, Delta Air Lines Inc. and United Airlines Holding Inc. have already made net-zero commitments. JetBlue Airways Corp., whose Chief Executive Officer Robin Hayes is the current chairman of IATA’s board, has set a target of 2040.
IATA said airlines need help from partners such as airports and engine makers in reaching their goals, and that planemakers in particular need to embrace fundamental change, especially so with the industry forecast to carry on losing money into next year.
Walsh praised Airbus SE for pursing hydrogen technology, while saying 2035 looks an ambitious target to bring a plane to market, and that the European firm must deliver on its promises.
“We don’t have a clear solution in the short term,” Walsh said. “We do believe very strongly that there is a credible path to net zero by 2050 and, more and more, a credible path to decarbonizing the industry.”
Pre-pandemic, the global aviation industry caused about 2% of all CO2 emissions. The temporary, albeit sharp, fall due to people being stuck at home is unlikely to have any real impact on climate change because the gas stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Airlines are also under pressure to bounce back from the downturn.
“If the sector is finally ready to address its emissions, then it should support Europe’s Green Deal policies which aim to apply an effective price on pollution and deploy cleaner jet fuel,” said Jo Dardenne, aviation manager at non-profit Transport & Environment, based in Brussels.
Walsh told Bloomberg News in June that IATA would propose the accelerated target to its membership.
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