Aviation Under Pressure To Set More Ambitious Climate Targets

Environmental campaigners have singled out aviation as being a major contributor to climate change, and the pressure is mounting.
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Pressure is mounting on the aviation industry to drastically step up efforts to reduce its impact on climate change. Experts warn that in a business-as-usual scenario, carbon-dioxide emissions from global aviation could rise by more than 80% by 2050.

As a growing list of countries adopt net-zero emissions targets for midcentury, some are questioning whether the airline sector’s decade-old pledge to halve emissions by 2050, compared to 2005, should be revised upward.

There is a growing sense of outrage among environmental campaigners over what they perceive as the airline industry getting a free ride while other sectors are forced by regulators to decarbonize. Calls are becoming louder, particularly in Europe, for a more uniform approach to taxing air ticket sales and for an end to airlines’ exemption from paying tax on jet fuel.

  • The Airline industry is under fire from environmental groups
  • Rising demand for air travel is outpacing efficiency gains

“The evidence is already there. The very fact that the industry needs Corsia [the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation] to deliver on its short-term goal [to achieve carbon-neutral growth from 2020] tells us that, in real terms, emissions are going to be much higher after 2020—even with technological advances,” says Tim Johnson, director of UK-based campaign group Aviation Environment Federation (AEF).

“All the forecasts suggest that while there will be continuous [efficiency] improvements, the big, radical step-changes in technology are unlikely to happen before 2050,” he says.

Johnson acknowledges we will see “modest improvements in efficiency and greater uptake of sustainable aviation fuel” before the middle of the century but says this “is not really going to make much of a dent in the demand trajectory and growing emissions.”

Unlike many other industries, aviation currently has no viable, widespread alternative to burning fossil fuels. This makes it a difficult sector to decarbonize. At the same time, global demand for air travel is rising rapidly and outstripping many of the efficiency gains achieved by the industry.

“Once people get to a middle income, one of the things they want to do is fly as much as they do in America and Europe. This could increase aviation emissions by 83% by 2050 in a business-as-usual scenario,” Adair Turner, former chairman of the UK Climate Change Commission and current head of the Energy Transitions Commission, told the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Greener by Design conference in London in November.

Turner believes the aviation industry’s target to halve emissions by 2050 should be doubled to a 100% reduction—a goal he says is achievable without carbon-offsetting. However, this assumes changes to the regulatory environment and much greater use of sustainable aviation fuels—which remain in short supply. As Johnson points out, the total volume of sustainable jet fuel produced in 2018 was only sufficient “to power the global aviation industry for 10 min.”

Johnson agrees that the environmental goals set by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in 2009 have become outdated. The targets to achieve carbon-neutral growth starting in 2020 and cut CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050 “belonged to another era,” before today’s “net-zero language.”

“We find ourselves in a very different world now,” says Johnson. “The [UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] advice is that we need to get to net zero by the second half of this century. This makes [IATA’s 50% reduction target] look dated. Now is the time to reevaluate that.

 “I’d be very surprised if the industry doesn’t have something to say on this [in 2020]. Once airlines start to lead individually with answers, it’s not long until the industry bodies catch up,” he adds.

John Broderick, a lecturer in energy and climate change at the University of Manchester’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, warns of the consequences of failing to achieve net-zero carbon emissions.

“We need to get to a position of net zero to stop continued global warming,” he says, noting that “approximately one-third of the CO2 emitted today will still be in the atmosphere in 1,000 years’ time.”

Broderick says it is time “to stop exempting aviation emissions” from countries’ net-zero action plans, a point backed by the UK Climate Change Commission (CCC) in a recent letter to UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.

The commission’s chairman, John Gummer, is calling on the UK to formally include international aviation and shipping in its plans to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

“Aviation is likely to be the largest-emitting sector in the UK by 2050, even with strong progress on technology and limiting demand. Aviation also has climate-warming effects beyond CO2, which it will be important to monitor and consider within future policies,” writes Gummer.

Studies are being carried out to gain a deeper understanding of the non-CO2 effects of aviation on climate change. These include nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, soot and sulphur particles and contrail-cirrus clouds. The latter form when linear contrails—the ice trails left behind by cruising aircraft—converge. It is thought that these clouds could result in an additional warming effect, potentially making aviation’s contribution even more serious.

The EU’s European Aviation Environmental Report 2019 describes the scientific understanding of these non-CO2 effects as “very low.” However, more clarity could be forthcoming early in 2020. According to Johnson, the European Commission has been “pulling together scientific brains on non-CO2 effects” and is due to publish its findings in the first quarter.

Gummer also acknowledges in the letter that zero-carbon aviation is “highly unlikely to be feasible by 2050.” Therefore, reducing actual emissions from the sector is “likely to require some use of greenhouse gas removals (GGR) to offset remaining emissions.”

The UK should “establish a new market” for GGR technology, says the letter, which Johnson interprets as laying down a challenge for the aviation industry to “lead investment in [GGR].”

In addition to GGR investment, the CCC says UK aviation emissions “could be reduced by around 20% from today to 2050 through improvements to fuel efficiency, some use of sustainable biofuels and by limiting demand growth to, at most, 25% above current levels.”

This is “very much at odds” with the 60% growth in passenger numbeæærs assumed under UK proposals for expanding the country’s airport capacity, says Johnson. “The more capacity we start to allow, the harder it looks that we will be able to constrain demand.”

Another possible method of limiting demand for air travel is new taxes. In Europe, efforts are underway to develop an EU-wide aviation tax. In Novem-ber, nine finance ministers called on the incoming European Commission to look at ways of making this a reality.

“Aviation transport is exempted from excise duties, no [value-added tax] is levied on international flights, there is no coordinated ticket tax and economic instruments to curb greenhouse gas emissions can be strengthened in the aviation sector,” the ministers said in a Nov. 7 statement. “We believe that more coordination on pricing of negative externalities of aviation could ensure that the polluter pays a fairer price for the use of aviation transport. To be effective and create a level playing field, we are convinced that EU coordination on this matter is the most effective for all member states.”

As countries work toward meeting their Paris Agreement commitments, it is widely expected regulation will play an increasing role in forcing the airline industry to reduce its emissions.

“Airlines need to be honest with their shareholders about the regulations that will be introduced,” says Andrew Murphy, aviation manager at Brussels-based sustainable transport lobby group Transport & Environment.

Pointing to carmaker Volkswagen’s November announcement that it will invest €60 billion ($67 billion) by 2024 in developing electric and hybrid cars—a decision Murphy says was made “because European laws require it”—he warns airlines will likely face similar legislative pressure.

“[The aviation industry’s] usual tactics don’t seem to be working—they’re up against climate science,” says Murphy. “The electricity sector in Europe is going greener and there is a huge uptake of electric [road] vehicles, but we will see nothing from the aviation sector. This paints a pretty negative picture for aviation.”

But IATA insists the actions it has taken and the emissions-reduction targets it has set are effective. In a Dec. 12 statement, it said carbon emissions per passenger have declined by more than 50% since 1990, and Corsia would “ensure carbon-neutral growth on international flights from 2020 and raise around $40 billion in climate finance.”

IATA says the industry will reduce emissions further in the longer term through clean technology, but this will require a “financially sound airline sector capable of funding the significant investments that will be needed to make flying sustainable.” It continues to argue vociferously against the additional taxes. “Taxation aimed at stopping people from exercising their freedom to fly will make travel more expensive but do very little to reduce emissions,” says IATA Director General Alexandre de Juniac.

“Governments must focus their efforts correctly. Flying drives prosperity. It is not the enemy. Cutting carbon must be at the forefront. And government leadership is needed to incentivize the commercialization of sustainable aviation fuels, drive efficiencies in air traffic management and support research into next-generation low-carbon energy sources.”

But such rhetoric will do little to convince critics that the aviation industry is not abdicating responsibility for its contribution to global warming. Indeed, airlines might find demand for air travel waning naturally if the “flygskam” movement, spearheaded by Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg, gathers pace and consumers shun air travel to reduce their own carbon footprints.

“Let’s see in 2020 what effect the ‘Greta effect’ is having on demand,” says Murphy.

Kerry Reals

Kerry Reals is a UK-based aviation journalist with 15 years’ experience covering all aspects of the airline and aerospace sector for a variety of industry publications. She is a freelance contributor to Aviation Week & Space Technology, Aviation Daily and Air Transport World, focusing on the European airline industry, with an emphasis on how the sector is working to improve sustainability and reduce its carbon footprint.


”The evidence is already there.” This statement begins the fourth paragraph of this article. Show the evidence. I have been asking for evidence for many years and have yet to be presented with any credible evidence human CO2 emissions are causing climate change.
Excellent article. I’ll follow up with a detailed response.I grade the industry’s results over the last decade as “F”. A decade ago, airline emissions were supposed to be capped in 2020 at close to 2005 levels.

Instead, fossil fuel consumed and Greenhouse gas emissions have grown
to 50% above 2005’s. In 2020 global airline fuel consumption will top 100 billion gallons and CO 2 emissions reach one billion tons. Current business as usual, concentrating on growth and maximum return to shareholders, will raise emissions well above 2020’s by 2030. Heads are still in the sand, lots more nice words but not enough planned action.