International negotiations on 2050 net-zero aviation goal progress, with countries betting heavily on alternative fuels

Aviation accounts for 2-3% of annual global carbon emissions and also is a significant source of other greenhouse gases

Ministers and officials from dozens of national governments and aviation trade bodies met in Montreal last week for the ICAO’s development of a new formal agreement on reaching net-zero emissions from the sector by 2050, backed up with significant funding and skills plans. In total, 700 participants attended, representing 119 countries. Many of these countries have legislated for post-2050 net-zero goals for their national economies, notably India and China, both of which have 2060 targets.

Late on Monday (25 June), the ICAO posted its concluding documents from the session, stating that there was a “collaborative spirit” and that dialogues were “constructive”. The documents reveal that there is a growing consensus for 2050 to be the deadline date for the so-called long-term aspirational goal of net-zero.

Also revealed is information about how nations see the technology mix necessary to deliver the transition looks. ICAO members see sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) as capable of delivering 53%-71% of the decarbonisation needed between now and 2050, making it the main technology solution in the mix.

SAF is popular as it can be dropped in as a fuel replacement, in blends of up to 50%, without changes to engines or to international regulations. It is also more mature a technology than electric and hydrogen planes.

Nonetheless, SAF presents many challenges. The source of SAF feedstocks has been a concern with green groups for some time, as unsustainable sourcing can lead to monocropping on land which could otherwise be used to grow food. This brings with it ethical, economic and biodiversity considerations. Nations such as the UK are aiming to prioritise the use of waste-derived SAF, but this is not the same for all ICAO participants, with the documents mentioning biomass and biofuels.

There is also the fact that, at present, global SAF production capacity is small. Eurocontrol estimated that SAF accounted for less than 1% of the European aviation sector’s jet fuel consumption in 2019.The ICAO itself is estimating that global production will stand at 14 billion litres or 11 billion tonnes in 2030. For context, commercial airlines consumed 359 billion litres of fuel in 2019, according to Statista.

Regarding the remainder of emissions in 2050, ICAO members see improvements in efficiencies delivering a further 7-10% of the emissions reductions needed, and most of the remaining reductions hailing from the development of “radical new technology options” such as electric and hydrogen aircraft.

This pathway would leave 6-8% of the sector’s emissions needing to be tackled using offsetting.

Capping the growth of the sector is not on the table for the pathway. The ICAO is instead pushing the narrative of ‘green growth’. Its secretary-general Juan Carlos Salazar said that  “recovering from the effects of the pandemic and combatting climate change go hand-in-hand”, despite reports that many airlines have lobbied for bailout packages without emissions requirements over the past two years.

As well as discussing technology pathways, ICAO members also debated the best ways to ensure that there is a skilled workforce for the sector’s transition and the establishment of new funding mechanisms to help low-income nations align with the net-zero pathway. The African Civil Aviation Commission (AFCAC) is pushing for ICAO assistance to build SAF infrastructure and deliver upskilling. Brazil, India, Nigeria, Sudan and Russia collectively proposed the establishment of a new multilateral fund to coordinate public and private finance for decarbonising aviation to lower-income nations. Whether either of these proposals come to fruition remains to be seen; ICAO is set to make a final agreement within two years.

UK Jet-Zero Strategy

The news from the ICAO comes shortly after the UK published its ‘Jet Zero Strategy’, outlining plans to reach net-zero by 2040 for the UK’s domestic flights and England’s airport operations, and net-zero by 2050 for international flights.

The plan is, as expected, heavily reliant on SAFs. You can read edie’s summary of what’s included here and our round-up of reactions from the green economy here.

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