13 major airlines commit to joint 2050 net-zero vision

Several of oneworld's member airlines already had standalone net-zero commitments

Orchestrated by global aviation alliance oneworld, the commitment will see the airlines invest in more fuel-efficient aircraft, sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and carbon offsetting to bring their net emissions footprint to zero by mid-century. Emissions from waste as well as from energy use will be accounted for, compelling oneworld members to distribute fewer single-use items and improve recycling and reuse processes.

Electric aircraft are not specifically mentioned in the commitment, which oneworld said will be delivered in line with existing business-government requirements, including the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) CORSIA scheme. CORSIA is designed to cap net emissions from the global aviation sector at 2019 levels, with airlines paying to offset emissions generated beyond this threshold.

Oneworld’s member airlines are American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Royal Air Moroc, Royal Jordanian, S7 Airlines, Sri Lankan Airlines and Fiji Airways. Alaska Airlines will be joining the alliance in the coming months and will also join the net-zero commitment.

A working group has been set up by oneworld to ensure that members are collaboratively working on a roadmap to meeting the goal, sharing best-practice information and key learnings throughout the coming decades. Qantas’ executive manager of sustainability and future planet, David Young, is co-chairing this group alongside IAG’s group head of sustainability Jonathon Counsell. IAG is British Airways’ parent firm and, like Japan Airlines, Qantas and Finnair, already has a standalone net-zero target.

“Despite the challenges we are all facing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, we have not lost sight of the responsibility we have to reduce emissions in the long term and [this] announcement reflects the strength of that commitment,” oneworld chairman and Qantas’ chief executive Alan Joyce said.

A green recovery?

Joyce alluded to the fact that the amount of passenger flights operating since the start of 2020 has plummeted significantly due to Covid-19-related travel restrictions.

Aviation was, pre-pandemic, responsible for around 3% of global emissions. While this proportion may seem small, the sector is widely considered hard-to-abate and is one of the fastest-growing in the world in terms of emissions; recent research revealed that flights will generate around 43 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions by 2050 – more than 4% of the world’s entire remaining carbon budget – as the sector grows. 

With these twin challenges of economic recovery and the low-carbon transition to contend with, the pressure is on the aviation sector to deliver a green and just recovery from Covid-19.

The UK Government has, for its part, launched a coalition of Ministers, businesses, trade bodies and environmental groups who will collaboratively work to align the aviation sector with the 2050 net-zero target – called the ‘Jet Zero Council’. It has also earmarked £200m from Treasury coffers and £200m from the industry for projects developing SAF, energy-efficient electric aircraft components, high-performance engines and wing designs intended to minimise fuel consumption.  

Nonetheless, MPs had recommended that £500m should be provided for SAF projects alone, as part of the UK’s wider economic recovery package, which the Treasury has costed at £160bn. Moreover, green groups have expressed anger and disappointment at the government and the Bank of England’s decisions to provide billions of pounds worth of bailout funding to airlines without attaching environmental conditions.

Sarah George

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