Aviation will be climate neutral by 2050: ambitious or ridiculous?

The international community wants to make the aviation sector climate-neutral by 2050. An ambitious goal, but environmental organizations are very skeptical: no support measures have been taken and no preliminary targets have been adopted.

The goal was endorsed by transport ministers at the meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in Montreal, Canada, last Friday. But there is currently no sustainable technology to eliminate aircraft emissions. And flying less is not an option for ICAO airlines and member states. As a result, airlines rely heavily on controversial carbon offset schemes to meet their climate targets.

Net zero

During the negotiations, the Climate Ambition Coalition, a group of mainly high-income countries, pushed for the net zero goal. China and Russia resisted. Industry umbrella organization IATA also backed the target despite opposition from Chinese airlines.

At a preparatory meeting of the UN Civil Aviation Organization in July, net zero in 2050 was put on the agenda. US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said last week that the goal is “achievable if we act.” He urged the meeting to “fully involve ICAO in the fight against climate change”

“Minimum Ambition”

The New Zealand representative wrote that the target was “the least ambitious this sector should aim for”. But Russia’s representative told the meeting that the target “will undoubtedly pose an unsustainable burden on the industry.” China used a climate justice argument. The delegation said the net-zero target “would lead to discriminatory market distortions to the detriment of developing countries”.

She also said that “China strongly opposes the developed countries’ attempts to transfer their responsibility for emission reductions to the developing countries”. But the majority of countries supported the net-zero goal, and the agreement was signed and announced on Friday (October 7).


“These have been hard-fought negotiations, but the real hard work is now starting to put in place the measures that will decarbonise the industry,” said Tim Johnson of the International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation.

Other activists are more critical. “Adopting climate targets without binding commitments to states and without intermediate targets is like building an airplane without wings,” said Anne Kretzschmar of Stay Grounded. According to Johnson, environmental groups in Montreal pushed for temporary goals. Some European countries and the United States supported that proposal but did not want to jeopardize the agreement.

Aviation expert Jo Dardenne from Transport and Environment wonders how the sector would achieve its goal. “We have an ambitious long-term goal on the one hand and a poor compensation scheme (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation Of Corsia, red.) on the other hand. To say that this will reduce aviation emissions to zero is just ridiculous,” she says.

Compensation plans

The industry’s most important technological solution is the use of “sustainable aviation fuels”, biofuels made from plant materials. But a recent report by the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) warns that growing crops for energy has some climate downsides. Moreover, this cultivation cannot meet the necessary scale for the expected future demand from aviation.

Instead, CATF says governments should research next-generation fuels, such as those based on pure hydrogen. However, it will take years before they are commercially usable. Airlines use lots of compensation schemes to claim emission reductions. But these compensations, including ICAO’s own Corsia scheme, have been widely criticized. Recently, European low-cost carrier Easyjet said it would no longer use offsets and instead focus on reducing its own emissions.

This article originally appeared with IPS partner Climate Home News

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