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COP26: Nations come together to promote aviation decarbonization
Twenty countries launched the International Aviation Climate Ambition Coalition (IACAC) at COP26 on 10 November, committing to working with each other and through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) "to reduce aviation CO2 emissions at a rate consistent with efforts to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C."
However, members of the coalition, the aviation industry, and other stakeholders who are concerned about the sector's emissions agreed that the group's formation is only a prelude to the real business at hand, which is a series of meetings to be hosted by the ICAO next year to hammer out an industry-wide net-zero plan.
The countries signing up for the pact include four of the six largest passenger aviation markets: the US (No. 1), Ireland (No. 3), the UK (No. 5), and Japan (No. 6). China, which is in the No. 2 spot, and India, which is ranked fourth, did not join the coalition.
Fast-growing emissions sector
Aviation accounted for 2.8% of global CO2 emissions in 2019, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Due to the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on flights in 2020 and 2021, the figure is likely to be lower for a brief period, but as global economies rebound it will grow at rates above the global average for all emissions.
"We are more dependent on aviation than ever before," UK Under Secretary of State for Transport Trudy Harrison said during a press briefing on 10 November to announce the formation of the IACAC.
Even during the pandemic, when passenger travel was slashed by 90% at times, "we relied on air freight for food and medicines we needed, and to keep trade moving," she observed.
"Despite commendable improvements in aircraft fuel efficiency [in the last decade], the industry remains among the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions," Harrison said. "The inherently international nature of aviation provides us with our greatest opportunity. Only global cooperation can put aviation on a truly sustainable path, so that we don't simply displace emissions from another source."
Aviation is considered one of the hardest-to-abate sectors of the global economy when it comes to GHGs, added US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. "But at a moment like this is, hard-to-abate is have-to-abate," he said. "Without dramatic, urgent action there will be substantial emissions growth over the next 30 years."
The US "is making up for lost time" on the issue, Buttigieg said, referencing the "United States 2021 Aviation Climate Action Plan," which he had unveiled a day earlier. That program sets a goal of net zero for US aviation emissions by 2050, envisioning a mix of strategies, from retiring older, less-efficient planes, to optimizing flight paths and trajectories, to expanded use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and, potentially, electrification of flight.
"We are accelerating our action and commitments," Buttigieg added. These include grants to accelerate production of SAF to 3 billion gallons per year by 2030. Also, the Department of Transportation and private investors have lined up $200 million for new technologies to improve airplane efficiency by 30% by 2030.
The US' net-zero goal is comprehensive. It includes GHG emissions from domestic aviation (regardless of origin of flight), international flights by US operators between any two ICAO states, and emissions generated at airports.
To meet the immense challenge, political leaders and industry participants during the briefing said solutions must cut across nations and technologies.
"The only way we will meet this challenge is [a hand-in-glove partnership between] industry, business, and civil society," said the moderator of the briefing, Gareth Davies, UK Department for Transport director general, aviation, maritime, international, and security group.
"Only through the introduction of radical, disruptive technology will we be able to decarbonize aviation," said ICAO President Salvatore Sciacchitano. "Fortunately, innovation is in aviation's DNA."
The CORSIA program is an example of how the industry can set an ambitious path, Sciacchitano said. As he and several other panelists at the briefing pointed out, CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) is the first worldwide market-based scheme in any single sector to address CO2 emissions.
Created in 2016 by ICAO members, CORSIA went into effect in January 2021 for a three-year pilot program through 2023 (and then full phase-in in 2024). Under CORSIA, 107 nations have committed to keeping their total combined CO2 emissions at 2020 levels in subsequent years. Individual airlines can avoid increases in emissions through efficiency programs, or offset growth in their emissions by purchasing credits and blending SAF with traditional jet fuel.
If all goes well, in September 2022 ICAO will meet to take the next step, which is to develop and ratify at its 41st Annual Assembly a long-term goal to keep the industry on track to support the 2050 Paris climate ambitions.
Already, many of the world's largest airlines, airplane engine makers, and more than 2,000 airports have signed on to a net-zero 2050 commitment for all flights within and departing from Europe, through the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), said Haldane Dodd, acting executive director of ATAG.
In February, ATAG members announced "Destination 2050 - A Route to Net Zero European Aviation," which also contains an interim goal of improving fuel economy by 1.5% per year through 2030.
"We don't like to make big promises without backup that we can make them happen," Dodd said of the commitment. "It's going to be incredibly challenging, and we will need a shift away from fossil fuels principally to sustainable fuels," as well as the use of some carbon offsets.
"We need support from governments—truly long-term policy certainty—and we need much more support from [the] energy sector than we have seen so far," Dodd said.
"We think 6.5% of our fuel supply [in Europe] can be SAF by 2030. Let's make that [amount] happen, or more," Dodd said.
If SAF production grows as expected, it could change which countries supply fuels, said Dodd. About 90% of fossil fuel-based aviation fuel comes from 22 countries, he said, but because the resources for SAF are spread more widely around the world, he believes that "democratization" of fuel manufacturing will create millions of jobs in emerging economies.
Kenya's experience shows how dramatically SAF could change the supply chain for aviation fuels, said Nancy Kerigithu, principal secretary in Kenya's State Department for Shipping and Maritime. ICAO funded a study that's underway to assess how to build a SAF supply chain in the country.
"Our country's strategic location [makes us] … one of the leading Africa transport hubs and tourist hubs; 90% of visitors arrive by air," she said. As one of the members of IACAC, Kenya is committed to "reducing reliance on fossil fuels," Kerigithu said.
COP26 is focusing attention on the need for commitments by buyers of SAF, so that biofuels producers can confidently make the necessary investments. To that end, a Sustainable Aviation Buyers Alliance (SABA) announcement on 10 November that new supporters joined the group builds momentum behind the shift. Amazon Air, Alaska Airlines, JetBlue, and United Airlines said they will commit to buying SAF, joining existing commitments from Boeing, Bank of America, Microsoft, and Netflix—all coordinated by the Environmental Defense Fund and RMI, two US-based environmental groups.
US biofuels producers are taking notice of the opportunity. During corporate earnings calls in the last two weeks, the CEOs of US biofuels producers Green Plains and Calumet Specialty Products Partners said they can produce SAF from renewable diesel fuel, and they're just waiting for the proper market signals.
Oil companies are getting into the game as well. Repsol and Iberia Airlines announced on 4 November that they just completed the Madrid-Bilbao route on a flight fueled by SAF produced from waste at an industrial complex in Spain. They estimate that 1.4 metric tons of CO2 were avoided. In October, Repsol had supplied SAF to a flight by Vueling, also in Spain, produced in this case from vegetable oils processed at Repsol's Tarragona Industrial Complex. It avoided 2.5 metric tons of CO2.
The good news, said Brad Shallert, World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) director of carbon market governance and aviation, is that aviation emissions are being treated with greater urgency than before. WWF has been advocating for a decade about the need to reduce aviation CO2 emissions, he said, with its arguments often falling on deaf ears.
"Industry and governments have not always taken the most ambitious climate pathways or listened to recommendations [nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)] have given them," he said. "But there is greater recognition, even in the aviation industry, that we need to be using all the tools right now. This means efficiency, operational measures, and SAF."
CORSIA is a step in the right direction, he said, "not as something that all NGOs agree on, but as an example of how governments can come together." ICAO can build on that framework in setting high goals for 2050, he said.
But Shallert opened a potential Pandora's box by mentioning another issue as well. "We need to find ways to reduce overall demand for aviation … which I know is not popular among airlines," he said, but he referenced IEA analysis that air travel will have to be trimmed for the world to meet the 1.5 degrees C climate goal.
Other climate activists saw little substance in the IACAC's formation, and they said the time for action is now.
"The world is crying out for strong action to address global aviation emissions. This is not it," Matt Finch, UK policy manager at Transport & Environment, a Brussels-based group, said in a statement. "At a COP dedicated to raising ambition, it is disappointing that these states continue to rely on the UN's deeply flawed aviation agency."
But IACAC members believe that they are changing the dynamic. "Now, 20 states … have shown the ambition to drive decarbonization," said the UK's Harrison. "We hope this will kickstart cooperation among governments … a greener, sustainable destination is so important for our cause."
"Aviation is a driver of economic growth … particularly in developing countries," said a representative of Costa Rica's government, speaking on behalf of Minister of Environment and Energy Andrea Meza Murillo. "We firmly believe more ambitious and aspirational goals [for decarbonization] can be achieved."
Gareth Davies, the UK minister who was moderator of the event, summed up the situation by noting "the breadth of support but also the depth of this support. We all recognize … this is hard. That means we all need to step up, and we all need to play our roles."
Or, as a quote from US aviator Amelia Earhardt shown during a video during the event succinctly stated: "The most effective way to do it is to do it."
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