BOSTON: Global airlines agreed on Monday (Oct 4) to step up plans to tackle climate change as they face mounting pressure from regulators and environmental groups over the impact of billions of extra passengers expected to take to the skies in coming decades.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which groups 290 airlines including leading state carriers, committed to reaching "net zero" carbon emissions by 2050, despite opposition from Chinese airlines.
The move accelerates a 12-year-old pledge to halve emissions from 2005 levels by 2050 and involves tackling an extra 300 million tonnes or so of carbon through measures such as bio-based sustainable aviation fuels or hybrid-electric technology.
But it drew a series of complaints from Chinese airlines, reflecting political differences with the West over the environment ahead of broader climate talks in Glasgow later this month and next.
China Eastern said airlines should recognise issues facing developing countries - a recurring flashpoint in international climate negotiations in recent years including the 2015 Paris agreement.
IATA Director General Willie Walsh acknowledged the new commitment would be "an additional challenge at a very difficult time", but appealed for unity.
"For aviation, net zero is a bold, audacious commitment. But it is also a necessity," he told airline leaders.
Airlines adopted the target as boardrooms count the cost of the COVID-19 crisis, which is piling up an estimated US$200 billion of losses between 2020 and 2022.
IATA projected a drop in industry losses next year to US$11.6 billion in 2022 from a steeper-than-expected US$51.8 billion loss in 2021.
China briefly overtook the United States as the world's largest domestic aviation market during the crisis because of different speeds of recovery, and is expected to dominate air traffic and aircraft demand in coming decades.
Countries agreed under the Paris Agreement to limit the rise in global temperatures from pre-industrial levels to 2 degrees Celsius and preferably to 1.5 degrees. To do that, scientists say the world needs to cut emissions to net zero by 2050.
More than 130 countries have set or are considering a target of reducing emissions to net zero by mid-century, the United Nations says. China, however, has said it aims to be "carbon neutral" by 2060.
"Carbon neutral" involves achieving reduction through measures such as a global offsetting scheme for aviation, which transfers the reduction to other industries especially while new technologies and fuels come onstream.
"Net zero" carbon means making changes to reduce carbon emissions to the lowest amount, and offsetting as a last resort.
Environmental groups say the priority should be to ensure that carbon stops reaching the atmosphere in the first place.
"Big announcements mean nothing if they’re not backed by credible policy," said Jo Dardenne, aviation manager at Brussels-based T&E.
Airlines' pledges are being mirrored by manufacturers as aviation attempts to forge a common front, though planemakers differ on the priorities for reaching the net-zero goal, with Airbus placing a higher public focus on hydrogen.
But other economic disputes resurfaced as Walsh - a former British Airways CEO with a reputation as a bruiser in dealing with unions and suppliers - lambasted high airport charges, including what he called London's "off the charts" Heathrow.
Airlines are also seeking government support to kick-start commercially viable production of sustainable aviation fuels, which are expected to bear the brunt of the industry's decarbonisation efforts, at least on long trips.