Six years ago, at Le Bourget airport, around 200 parties adopted The Paris Agreement aiming to limit global warming to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels. Despite this agreement, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) today estimates that the world must make net emissions of CO2 at least 45% lower in 2030 than they were in 2010, and reduce them to zero by the middle of this century to achieve this. Over the past weeks, as global representatives gathered in Glasgow for COP26, including our own Martine Jauroyon, Egis’s Chief Transformation & CSR Officer accompanying the French delegation, there is an increasing will and pressure to double down on previous climate commitments.
Considering the IPCC estimates that a ‘one year pulse emission’ (ie. one year of combined emissions) from the aviation sector leads to a net surface warming at 20 and 100 year horizons, and that aviation emissions were previously projected to rise by 200% – 360% by 2050 (even with lower-carbon alternative fuels factored in), the industry is an obvious target for stronger measures. But what exactly could these mean for aviation?
The main mention of aviation at COP26 was in the context of the UK led International Aviation Climate Ambition Coalition (IACAC) – a group of 23 countries (at the time of writing), who “commit to working together to support the adoption of an ambitious global goal for international aviation CO2 emissions by ICAO”.
The declaration issued by the IACAC essentially recognises that aviation has been making material contributions to climate change, that traffic numbers are expected to increase significantly over the next 30 years, and that there is a need to develop initiatives that enable the aviation industry to continue to build back better and grow in a sustainable manner. This is to be achieved thanks to an 8-point agenda, summarised below:
- International cooperation through ICAO and other “complementary cooperative initiatives” to reduce aviation CO2 emissions;
- The adoption of more ambitious sustainability targets through ICAO and commitment towards net zero CO2 emissions by 2050;
- Ensuring CORSIA effectiveness through timely implementation, expanded participation, regulatory enforcement, advanced ambition, and alleviation of emission double-counting;
- Promoting the development and deployment of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), in particular avoiding competition with food production for land use and water supply;
- Promoting the development and deployment, through international and national measures, of innovative new low- and zero-carbon aircraft technologies;
- Preparing up-to-date, concrete, and ambitious state action plans to reduce aviation emissions and submitting these plans to ICAO in advance of the 41st ICAO Assembly (September 2022);
- Promoting capacity support for the implementation of CORSIA and other climate measures, including access to tools, expertise, accreditation, and markets for SAF and Emissions Units;
- Convening periodically at both ministerial and official levels with a view to advancing and reviewing progress on the above commitments.
At first glance, the statement seems less concrete than some of the other initiatives we have seen at COP26, hovering at a relatively high level over the issue and making general commitments, which many have heard before. Furthermore, the initial number of 23 signatories, not including major players in Europe and Asia-Pacific, is low when compared to the 200 or so who signed up to The Paris Agreement. This leads us to question exactly how willing governments are to sign up to measures which could constrain the recovery and growth of aviation in the current climate.
Nevertheless, there are grounds for cautious optimism. The IACAC nations, while relatively small in number, account for ~44% of global air passenger traffic and include the key aviation expertise and aerospace engineering hubs of France, the US, the UK, Spain, Canada, Japan, and Korea among others. This could mean that future state action plans to reduce aviation emissions, measures for development and deployment of SAF, and R&D for new low-and zero-carbon aircraft technologies referenced in the declaration will be strong and effective.
Furthermore, the official declaration rightly recognises that ICAO (not COP) is the appropriate forum in which to address emissions from international aviation, meaning that the measures and action plans to be presented at the 41st ICAO Assembly will hopefully be more much more concrete and detailed than the ones above.
Another key point for consideration is the geopolitical clout of the signatories. Not only will they likely be able to drive further CORSIA uptake and implementation, but they should also be able to influence the adoption of ambitious and possibly binding global aviation targets in the future.
Overall, while it is difficult to say what the specific implications could be at this stage, there seems to be a growing consensus in the international community that the decarbonisation of aviation will be driven by operational efficiency, carbon offsetting, and SAF in the short to medium term and complemented by the deployment of new technology including electricity and hydrogen powered flight in the medium to long term. What is sure is that we are likely to see key trends in the upcoming years:
- SAF deployment: Investment and government-backed programmes aimed at improving market conditions for the deployment of SAF at major hub and regional airports;
- SAF uptake: Incentivisation for the uptake of SAF by airlines, likely by making kerosene less financially viable and allowing emissions ‘discounting’ in CORSIA and future emissions targets;
- Accelerated R&D: Considerable government investment and involvement in R&D and research programmes, likely to be targeted on electrification and hydrogen power;
- CORSIA development: A wider global uptake of CORSIA as additional ICAO member states become voluntary participants and possible revision of carbon credit prices;
- Performance targets: The adoption of official standardised environmental performance targets on global and potentially national levels;
- Efficiency incentives: Increased opportunities for cross-industry and international cooperation and general incentivisation for increased operational and infrastructural efficiency.
While SAF and offsetting, as primary topics at COP26, are reasonable short-term mitigations, their decarbonisation potential is limited and will not be sufficient to achieve future climate goals for two key reasons. Firstly, SAF emit at least as much CO2 as kerosene, with any greenhouse gas savings made in their production stage. Secondly, CORSIA and most other offsetting is based on the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), thrown into doubt since a European Commission study found that 85% of offset projects either overestimated their impact or failed to reduce emissions.
‘Net-zero’ is not ‘zero’ – which is what we should be aiming for if we are to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Our industry will not be able to rely on potential future gains at the expense of today’s environment. As we work collaboratively in the midst of a strong recovery, SAF, offsets, and operational efficiency will be key enablers but are not a definitive solution.
There is an exciting opportunity for aviation to challenge itself, and even though there have been notable efforts and green strides in recent years, these are going to need to be stepped up to the next level as the international community calls on greater efforts to drive the decarbonisation of aviation. COP26 has initiated a dialogue with strong potential, but little substance so far. It will be all eyes on ICAO next, where I very much hope that the IACAC declaration promises will be delivered on and expectations around concrete international decarbonisation and zero-emission action plans will be exceeded.