Airline Industry to Weigh Goal of Net-Zero Emissions by 2050

The airline industry’s global trade group will propose eliminating carbon emissions on a net basis by 2050, as pressure builds to improve the climate goals of a segment that’s come under increasing criticism for its use of fossil fuels.

The International Air Transport Association will ask carriers to adopt the target at its annual meeting in Boston in October, Willie Walsh, its director general, said in an interview Thursday.

While airlines including British Airways owner IAG SA, Delta Air Lines Inc. and United Airlines Holding Inc. have all made net-zero commitments, IATA hasn’t updated its own goal since 2009. At that time, airlines pledged to cut CO2 output 50% by mid-century, compared with 2005 levels. But emissions have surged since then, driven by a boom in air travel cut short only last year by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m very confident that the industry will align with the changed goals,” Walsh said. “But we do have to go through the formal process.”

Aviation has come under a harsher spotlight as automakers and the power industry make strides toward cutting emissions in line with goals set by the Paris Agreement. Before the pandemic, so-called flight-shaming prompted movements to limit air travel and switch to trains, for example.

Airline Industry to Weigh Goal of Net-Zero Emissions by 2050

Pre-pandemic, the global aviation industry caused about 2% of all CO2 emissions. The temporary, albeit sharp, fall due to people being stuck at home is unlikely to have any real impact on climate change because the gas stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.

Walsh argues that while there’s little that carriers can do on their own, there’s a credible path toward carbon neutrality if governments, oil companies and planemakers pitch in to do their share.

“It’s unacceptable that others in the wider aviation industry just look to airlines to write the big check,” he said. “We don’t build the aircraft or produce the fuel or run the air traffic services.”

Hydrogen Plane

One challenge in decarbonizing aviation is the difficulty of getting planes airborne with alternative fuels.

IATA intends to hold planemaker Airbus SE to a pledge to produce a hydrogen-fueled aircraft by 2035 and said the model needs to have a size comparable to the top-selling A320 narrow-body -- carrying 150 people -- and a range of at least 1,000 kilometers (621 miles).

“In reality, in 2035 if we do have a hydrogen-powered aircraft, it’s not going to radically change things because it’s likely that aircraft will be for short-haul flying,” Walsh said.

Governments and oil companies should also increase investment in sustainable aviation fuels, seen as key to cutting emissions over the next decade, and European countries must come together to form a single air-traffic control area that would optimize routes and cut CO2 at a stroke, he said.

The 2015 Paris Agreement committed almost 200 countries to stabilize global warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial levels, with a stretch target of 1.5 degrees Celsius. It also calls for all man-made emissions to fall to net zero during the second half of this century.

However, international aviation wasn’t specifically covered, and isn’t counted in national targets. Goals associated with flying were left for individual countries to develop on their own.

Airlines’ CO2 emissions reached about 915 million metric tons in 2019, according to Air Transport Action Group, an industry group focused on environmental issues.

Based on 2005 levels, IATA’s current target is for carriers to reduce carbon emissions to 325 million metric tons by 2050. Walsh said achieving net-zero would represent only an incremental change, given the direction already set in 2009.

Recovery, Flying Taxis

Walsh spoke in a wide-ranging interview. Other points he addressed:

  • Industry comeback: Walsh is slightly more optimistic than current IATA estimate for a $48 billion industry loss for 2021. The second half looks better for Europe given pace of vaccine rollouts, but transatlantic routes are reopening slower than expected. He sees the U.S. opening to European visitors “probably during July”
  • U.K. government “haven’t done anything specific to the airline industry. So I wouldn’t be optimistic about them doing anything going forward” in terms of financial support
  • Mideast super-hubs still “very important” and will have higher relevance post-pandemic -- becoming more valuable while fewer direct flights are available
  • Skeptical that flying taxis can become a viable business, but not dismissing them
  • China is “very credible future player” in aircraft manufacturing and “clearly have the determination to get there”; coming Comac C919 probably won’t see much demand outside domestic market

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