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Aviation sets net zero targets amid lobbying controversy

© Shutterstock / Lukas GojdaPost Thumbnail

Despite the industry fighting any form of regulation for many years, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has finally announced some ‘aspirational goals’ for net zero aviation.

  • ICAO has set aspirational GHG emissions reduction goals, with vague aspirations and no means of enforcement. 
  • An InfluenceMap report highlights the industry lobbying that has stymied action on aviation.
  • Despite growing industry focus on ‘sustainable aviation fuel’ the sector has a serious credibility problem.

After two weeks of arguing by over 2500 delegates from 184 States and 57 organizations at the 41st ICAO Assembly, ICAO Member States adopted a collective long-term global aspirational goal (LTAG) of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

While it is a step forward that a goal to achieve net zero emissions in aviation has been set, but overall it remains a vague commitment and there are no teeth, or enforcement terms, associated with the goal. The commitment is to ‘set the industry on the path to net zero 2050’.

The introduction of aviation to the world of emissions management is critical. It represents roughly 2.5% of global emissions, although arguments remain about whether its impact is in fact far higher, due to where those emissions are released into the atmosphere. At the same time, countries are fiercely protective of their airlines, and air transport plays a vital role in many economies.

Does an aspirational goal of 2050 net zero for aviation have meaning?

There are no real details of how this will be achieved because, according to the ICAO, the achievement of such goals will be dependent on the combined effect of multiple CO2 emissions reduction measures, including the accelerated adoption of new and innovative aircraft technologies, streamlined flight operations, and the increased production and deployment of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF).

Unsurprisingly, the one thing that all the States at the ICAO Assembly agreed on was the importance of viable financing and investment support to the new CO2 emissions goal’s attainment.

The Assembly said it fully supported the new ICAO Assistance, Capacity-building and Training for Sustainable Aviation Fuels (ACT-SAF)  programme to accelerate the availability and use of SAF – requesting in addition that a third ICAO Conference on Aviation and Alternative Fuels be convened in 2023.

Criticism of CORSIA project for cutting CO2 emissions

Other notable environmental developments at the 41st ICAO Assembly included the completion of the first periodic review of the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).

Countries agreed on a new CORSIA baseline from 2024 onwards, defined as 85% of CO2 emissions in 2019, and on revised percentages for the sectoral and individual growth factors to be used for the calculation of offsetting requirements from 2030 onwards. Given that aviation collapsed during the pandemic, the target of 85% of 2019 figures gives airlines a lot to play with before they have to take action.

Of course the use of offsets itself remains a challenge as there are increasing questions being asked about the extent to which offsetting can or should be used in meeting net zero goals.

The fact that the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) warned that the CORSIA project is unlikely to reduce aviation emissions and potentially covering only 6% of aviation emissions to 2020, this doesn’t look like a helpful step.

How corporate interests influence global climate policy at the UN body for aviation

Unfortunately for the aviation industry, new analysis from Influence Map reports that the aviation industry has an outsized influence over global climate rules for the sector amid limited public scrutiny. This is according to a detailed analysis of corporate engagement and transparency rules at the UN’s aviation agency.

Given the lack of ambition in Montreal, this simply underscores the perspective that the aviation industry is trying to avoid taking effective action on emissions, and its contribution to climate change.

Lack of transparency in discussions of aviation’s future is a cause for concern

The report says that ICAO’s key climate negotiation body, the Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP), adopts numerous – and problematic – transparency practices that are not replicated in other major UN climate negotiation forums.

These include requiring delegates to sign non-disclosure agreements to participate and prohibiting the media from attending key climate negotiations.

Moreover, at climate meetings since the Paris Agreement at CAEP, over 30% of delegates come from the aviation or fossil fuel industries.

At these meetings, industry outnumbered environmental delegates by more than seven to one and only a single environmental group, the International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation (ICSA), is permitted to attend such meetings, compared with seven industry groups.

Tracking emissions proposals shows weakening of approach

The analysis highlights how the aviation industry’s efforts to influence global climate policy at ICAO appears to have been highly successful. For example, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) seemed to have first proposed a similar measure to, and subsequently helped develop, and later propose weakening, ICAO’s main climate rule – the CORSIA offsetting scheme.

The findings raise serious questions around the potential adoption of a long term aspirational goal (LTAG) of net zero CO2 emissions from international aviation by 2050 at the 41st ICAO Assembly. Industry, led by IATA, has championed this goal despite broad opposition to near-term policies that might help achieve this target, and multiple IATA key members – including the CEO of Etihad – raising doubts about its feasibility.

A 2050 net zero target with no teeth, and analysis that suggests industry capture – aviation has a credibility problem

InfluenceMap’s analysis suggests that the global aviation industry has used its support for net-zero in PR campaigns to help promote ‘sustainable’ flying and distract attention away from policy efforts that would otherwise reduce in-sector aviation emissions, particularly at national and regional levels.

That means that the aviation sector has an increasingly pressing credibility problem, and one that won’t be easy to overcome.

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