193 countries pledge to slash air-travel emissions by 2050

It’s the first international agreement of its kind for the hard-to-decarbonize aviation industry, but critics say the nonbinding target lacks teeth.

An aircraft marshaller in a green safety vest signals to the pilot of a passenger jet
(Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP/Getty Images)
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The world’s airlines will need to act rapidly if they’re going to meet a new global goal for curbing emissions, experts say.

Last Friday, the International Civil Aviation Organization agreed to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. The specialized United Nations agency, which has 193 member countries, adopted the long-term aspirational target after nearly a decade of negotiations. 

To stay on track, we’ll need to peak emissions as soon as 2025,” Dan Rutherford, aviation director for the nonprofit International Council on Clean Transportation, said in a written statement.

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That’s no small feat for an industry that contributes more than 2 percent of global CO2 emissions — and counting. Air travel is projected to grow significantly, with about 7.8 billion passengers expected to fly in 2040, or nearly twice as many in the pre-pandemic year of 2019, according to the International Air Transport Association, an industry trade group.

Global airlines are already taking some steps to curb emissions from flying, such as replacing older aircraft with energy-efficient models and setting weight limits to reduce the amount of fuel needed to fly planes. In the United States and Europe, companies are blending small amounts of sustainable aviation fuel — made from used cooking oil, forest residues or captured carbon — with conventional jet fuel to lower their CO2 emissions. Startups and major manufacturers alike are developing aircraft that use hydrogen fuel cells or batteries instead of engines. 

Still, the aviation industry will need to invest potentially trillions of dollars in zero-carbon fuels and technologies over the next decades in order to meet its net-zero pledge. Curbing air traffic growth, including by raising ticket prices or ending frequent-flier programs, is also considered key to limiting emissions.

The United Nations defines net zero” as slashing planet-warming emissions as close to zero as possible and working to reabsorb” any remaining emissions from the atmosphere through measures such as soil carbon sequestration or reforestation. Such steps are necessary to avert the worst impacts of climate change and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

In 2015, nearly all of the world’s nations agreed to reduce their individual emissions under the landmark Paris climate accord. Yet the agreement didn’t extend to international aviation or maritime shipping — two industries that cross many borders and are thus tougher for any one country to regulate, officials argued at the time. Instead, the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Maritime Organization were left to rein in their respective industries on their own. (Shipping regulators adopted their own nonbinding climate goal in 2018.)

The new ICAO agreement provides new hope that the aviation industry will align itself with the Paris Agreement,” according to the International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation, a group of nongovernmental organizations. The hard work starts now. The current urgent state of the climate crisis means we cannot afford any additional delays.” 

Rutherford of the International Council on Clean Transportation stressed that the richest nations should take the lead. That’s because high-income countries account for the majority of global air travel, and the richest 20 percent of people globally take 80 percent of all flights, according to the organization’s findings. Recently, it suggested imposing a global tax on wealthier frequent fliers and business travelers, with the proceeds helping to cover the costs of cleaner technologies.

Aviation’s new net-zero goal should help accelerate such investments in fossil-free flying, observers say. But ICAO’s target still has several significant shortcomings.

The agreement doesn’t include non-CO2 effects from flying, such as those derived from persistent condensation trails and nitrous oxides — which may have an even bigger climate impact than carbon dioxide. The net-zero target also doesn’t include any near-term benchmarks to measure progress between now and 2050, nor does it establish specific guidelines for countries or airlines; it’s up to member states to figure out how they’ll achieve the goal.

Jo Dardenne, aviation director at the Brussels-based group Transport & Environment, called the target a goal without teeth” that amounts to a smokescreen for the airline industry.

Let’s not pretend that a nonbinding goal will get aviation down to zero,” Dardenne said in a statement.

Be sure to check back every day this week for Canary Media’s Power by the People special coverage. 

Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.