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On the march to net-zero 2050

Agreement at the 41st Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) earlier this month to strive for net-zero emissions by 2050 was universally welcomed by the industry. But arriving at the target will be a long journey, reports Associate editor and chief correspondent, Tom Ballantyne.

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October 1st 2022

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Adoption of a collective long-term global aspirational goal (LTAG) of net-zero carbon emissions from aviation by 2050 took 2,500 delegates from 184 member States and 57 organizations two weeks of intensive diplomacy to formulate. Read More » But the commitment, announced in the closing hours of the 41st International Civil Aviation Organisation Assembly, held in Montreal earlier this month, was exactly what the industry wanted.

Airlines already had committed to their own net-zero emissions by 2050 target at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Annual General Meeting in October last year. However, the significance of the LTAG agreement cannot be under-estimated, IATA director general, Willie Walsh, said. It was “a milestone day”, declared executive director of the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), Haldane Dodd.

Airports also joined the cavalcade praising the LTAG. “As a voice of 127 airport members operating 118 airports, ACI Asia-Pacific welcomes the support of governments in adopting the 2050 net-zero carbon goal for air transport,” regional director general, Stefano Baronci, said.

Member countries voted overwhelmingly in favour of the LTAG, but it was by no means a unanimous decision. It was a “compromise” said some European countries wanting a more ambitious target while China, backed by Russia and Eritrea, questioned the feasibility of the goal without more evidence and said developed countries must provide financial support to nations still growing their aviation markets.

As well, there are no guarantees all member states will adhere to the agreement. China has always said its target is net-zero emissions by 2060, as has Saudi Arabia. India’s timeline has been to 2070. ATAG’s Dodd said: “It does not mean China opposes sustainable aviation growth. But it wants to do it at its own pace and in its own way.” “States’ adoption of this new long-term goal for decarbonised air transport, following 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,” ICAO Council president, Salvatore Sciacchitano, said.

Tempering the enthusiasm greeting the LTAG announcement were warnings the target will not be easy to achieve. “The aviation industry’s commitment to achieve net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 requires supportive government policies,” stressed Walsh. “Now that governments and industry are focused on net-zero by 2050, we expect much stronger policy initiatives in key areas of decarbonization such as incentivizing the production capacity of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF).

“The global determination to decarbonize aviation that underpins this agreement must follow 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,” Walsh said.

It was a point underscored by Dodd. “The spirit of global cooperation has been on show at ICAO in the past year with governments making the most of the benefits of multilateralism. But setting a goal is one thing. Making it a reality is where the hard work begins. We need to continue – and accelerate – the efficiency improvements and energy transition underway across the industry,” he said.

Many States will need to help their countries implement a net-zero path way. “Financing the transition will be a priority for governments, industry and the investment sector. The energy industry must be serious about the build-up of SAF. Net-zero aviation is fully achievable if we work together across industry, government, the energy sector and finance communities.”

Convincing the broader general public aviation is playing its part to save the environment is challenging but Asia-Pacific airlines are driving hard to achieve the 2050 target.

Recent examples are SIA selling SAF credits since July, Cebu Pacific and Malaysia Airlines flying their first SAF flights and a US$200 million Airbus/Qantas Group joint investment to accelerate an SAF industry in Australia.

On November 18, Japan Airlines will fly a net-zero CO2 A350-900 passenger service between Tokyo Haneda and Okinawa Naha. The charter flight will be powered by SAF and the in-cabin service will focus on reducing its environmental impact. Cathay Pacific has concluded an off take agreement with Aemetis for the supply of 38 million [US] gallons of blended SAF, to be delivered from San Francisco Airport from 2025 for the next seven years. The SAF purchased will reduce more than 80,000 tonnes of lifecycle carbon emissions, equivalent to the carbon sequestered by more than 1.3 million tree seedlings grown over 10 years.

Air New Zealand has reached the next stop on its “Flight NZ0” journey to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The carrier’s first shipment of Neste MY Sustainable Aviation Fuel to help power the airline’s fleet is being landed at press time. The SAF is being imported into New Zealand in partnership with Z Energy. The 1.2 million liter (937 tons) of neat SAF is equivalent to fueling around 400 return flights between Auckland and Wellington.

Alliances are playing their part. SkyTeam has launched “The Sustainable Flight Challenge” to identify the airline operating most sustainable flight or generating the most significant innovation to reduce aviation’s impact on the environment. It also opened a revamped alliance lounge in Sydney, redesigned with greater sustainability eliminating single-use plastic straws and stirrers, installing water-saving cisterns and shower heads in showers and bathrooms, operating movement sensor smart technology to save energy and reduce emissions and participation in the airport’s waste recycling program.

States at the ICAO Assembly collectively underscored the importance of viable financing and investment support to meet the new CO2 emissions goal’s attainment and fully supported the new ICAO Assistance, Capacity-building and Training for Sustainable Aviation Fuels (ACT-SAF) program to accelerate SAF use. A third ICAO Conference on Aviation and Alternative Fuels will be held in 2023.

IATA also upped its emissions reducing ante. The association agreed to stabilize emissions of international aviation at 85% of 2019 levels. In agreeing to this, many governments emphasized CORSIA’s role as the only economic measure to be applied to manage the carbon footprint of international aviation.

“The Assembly’s agreement strengthens CORSIA”, said Walsh. “The lower baseline will place a significantly greater cost burden on airlines. So, it is more critical than ever that governments do not chip away at the cement bonding CORSIA as the only economic measure to manage the carbon footprint of international aviation. States must now honor, support and defend CORSIA against any proliferation of economic measures. These will only undermine CORSIA and the collective effort to decarbonize aviation.”

The single most important tool in the emissions reduction battle is SAF with the industry forecasting it to play the largest role in decarbonizing aviation. IATA estimates around 65% of the mitigation needed for net zero emissions in 2050 will come from SAF. The industry purchased 100 million liters of SAF available in 2021. The supply remains limited and the price far higher than conventional jet fuel.

“With LTAG in mind, state efforts should be focused on incentivizing an increase in SAF production capacity and thereby reducing its cost,” Walsh said. “The tremendous progress made in many economies from the transition of electricity production to green sources such as solar power and wind is a shining example of what can be achieved with the right government policies, particularly production incentives.”

IATA also emphasized the criticality of effective implementation. Walsh said governments must not lose the momentum that has driven the outcomes of the assembly. “The costs of decarbonizing aviation are in the trillions of dollars and the timeline to transition to a global industry is long. With the right government policies, to SAF could reach a tipping point in 2030 that will lead us to our net-zero goal,” he said.

“By the next Assembly, the ‘aspirational’ characterization of LTAG must be transformed into a firm goal with a clear plan of action. Governments must work with industry to implement an effective global policy framework to attract the financial resources necessary to put aviation on an unstoppable track to achieve net-zero by 2050. There is lots of work to do, and not a minute to lose.”

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