International Air Transport Association (IATA) members on Monday voted to strengthen the airline industry’s environmental ambition and set a target to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, up from a previous target to half CO2 emissions on 2005 levels by 2050. The new target was expected and approved at the IATA annual general meeting in Boston in spite of requests by Chinese airlines to delay the timeframe to 2060, in line with China’s carbon neutrality pledge.
IATA director general Willie Walsh described the adoption of the new target by its membership—around 290 airlines—as “a momentous decision to ensure that flying is sustainable. The post-Covid-19 re-connect will be on a clear path towards net zero.”
Walsh acknowledged that achieving net zero emissions will be a “huge challenge,” but said it is an clear necessity if the industry wants to grow. IATA is projecting some 10 billion people will fly in 2050; this takes account of the Covid-19 related traffic loss. If airlines want to do this without emitting CO2 they will need to abate at least 1.8 gigatons of carbon in that year. Moreover, the net zero commitment implies that a cumulative total of 21.2 gigatons of carbon will be abated between now and 2050.
The IATA head warned that achieving global zero emission air connectivity cannot be accomplished on “the backs of airlines alone.” All parts of the aviation industry must work together, including governments, fuel suppliers, and OEMs, he stressed.
The cross-industry Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), whose 40 members span airports, airlines, airframe and engine manufacturers, air navigation service providers, leasing companies, airline pilot and air traffic controller unions, will endorse IATA’s zero-emission goal on Tuesday. Fuel suppliers and governments, two key stakeholders in the move towards carbon neutrality, however, are not ATAG members.
IATA mapped out a scenario on how to stabilize and reduce airline’s emissions, though it pointed out that the scenario most likely will change as time progresses and some new technologies such as hydrogen mature, or fail to materialize. Airbus is working on an hydrogen-powered short-and medium-haul airliner. Speaking at the IATA AGM, the European aerospace group’s CEO, Guillaume Faury, once again expressed confidence an Airbus hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft will enter into service in 2035. “I think this is very ambitious,” Walsh said, calling the application of hydrogen propulsion in commercial aviation as a “complex issue.”
The current IATA scenario foresees that 65 percent of carbon emissions will be abated through sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and 13 percent though the introduction of new propulsion technology, such as hydrogen. Efficiency improvements—specifically air traffic navigation—will account for a further 3 percent. The remainder could be dealt with through carbon capture and storage (11 percent) and offsets (8 percent).
A 65 percent reduction of the global industry's carbon with SAF will require scaling up production from 100 million liters today to at least 449 billion liters in 2050, according to IATA SVP environment and sustainability, Sebastien Mikosz.
“There will be those who say that we face impossible numbers and technical challenges,” Walsh concluded. “Aviation has a history of realizing what was thought to be impossible—and doing so quickly,” he said.