Why airline net zero commitments aren’t green at all

Jo Dardenne — October 28, 2021

Airlines know they need to ditch polluting jet fuel, but relying on offsets is not the answer

With increasing political and public pressure to address climate change, the aviation industry has started to announce net zero emissions targets for 2050. The sector rightly acknowledges that the aviation industry needs to end its reliance on polluting jet fuel, but its actions are yet to match its words. 

New targets, same tactics

Back in 2010 IATA, a trade association of the world’s airlines, committed to halving the aviation sector’s emissions by 2050 and to using 10% sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) by 2017. Twelve years later, the sector’s emissions are still expected to triple by 2050 and the current use of SAFs in the EU is estimated to be just 0.05% of total jet fuel consumption. Who is to blame for this gap between targets and outcomes? The answer: airlines themselves. 

Airline CEOs keep on adopting new targets, but their lobbyists don’t appear to be getting the message. 

IATA has been opposing national measures to effectively address aviation emissions for decades, duping the public into believing that the UN aviation agency and its cheap offsetting scheme (Corsia) will solve aviation’s climate impact. Not only has it called on the EU to replace its own carbon market with this weak offsetting scheme, but IATA and its members have continuously opposed national climate action, ticket taxes and fuel mandates, despite being one of the only sectors not to pay fuel taxes in Europe.

Offsetting: the industry’s useless magic wand

The airlines’ solution to reach net zero is getting billions of subsidies for fossil fuels or new aircraft and relying on cheap offsetting schemes to clear their climate conscience. Minimum effort, maximum reward. But relying on ICAO’s cheap and ineffective offsetting scheme is no longer acceptable for an industry that commits to carbon neutrality, and taxpayers should not be funding new fuels or technologies unless effective regulation is in place to force the sector to decarbonise. 

Many assessments have shown that Corsia is the worst option for the climate, not only because it relies on cheap offsets that will never incentivise airlines to stop burning fossil fuel, but also because there is no guarantee that these offsets will actually permanently reduce CO2 emissions somewhere else in the world. And if IATA is so committed to Corsia, it should explain why it lobbied ICAO last year to further water down the ambition of the scheme. 

Focusing on buying cheap offsets instead of actively supporting new fuels or aircraft will undermine innovation efforts that the sector desperately needs. IATA is committed to using increasing amounts of SAFs but criticising any regulation that will ramp up production, such as EU blending mandates. If the sector is serious about deploying sustainable fuels, then it should also support obligations to use them, because this will send the right signals to the market to incentivise production. 

Instead IATA is asking governments for financial support. Why should governments and taxpayers finance the deployment of these fuels if airlines are not even obliged to use them and if they continue flying around with tax-free polluting jet fuel?

Aspirational targets shouldn’t distract governments from effective regulation 

Back in 2012, the EU already agreed to limit the scope of its carbon market to only cover intra-EU aviation emissions, with the promise that ICAO would deliver an effective international solution. It has failed to do so. ICAO and Corsia should no longer be used as an excuse to delay effective regulation to price emissions and force the uptake of cleaner fuels.

That car manufacturers are now committing billions to produce electric vehicles is the result of binding European targets and regulation. We need a similar level of ambition for aviation if it has any hope of reaching zero emissions by 2050. As airlines aren’t going to match their ambitious words with action, it’s time for legislators to make them.

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