Analysis: Aviation industry emissions plans consistent with 4˚C of warming

Press release

22 September 2022 - Governments have not yet agreed on a long term climate target for international aviation and none of the three emissions reduction scenarios due to be discussed at an upcoming meeting are anywhere near Paris Agreement compatible, according to the Climate Action Tracker’s latest analysis of the sector.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) will hold its 41st session from 27 September, and is expected to discuss three scenarios developed by its Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP). Without strong action, emissions from international aviation will double or even triple between 2019 and 2050 and reach 1100 to 1850 MtCO2 by 2050.

A 1.5°C Paris Agreement compatible emissions level for the international aviation industry would be a reduction of 90% by 2050 below the 2019 levels (70Mt), coupled with deep cuts to non-CO2 emissions, but the three scenarios would reduce emissions by 70% at best. The least ambitious of the scenarios even allows emissions to increase by 50% (200–950Mt). At best, this would be rated “Highly insufficient,” at worse, “Critically insufficient” consistent with at least 3 degrees of warming, if not 4 degrees.

The other key industry body, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), has committed to net zero carbon from aviation by 2050, the target depends on offsetting for about 20% of reductions and doesn’t address non-CO2 emissions. CAT would rate this target as “Highly insufficient”.

"It is disappointing to see that even after more than 20 years of being charged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the aviation industry has difficulty taking the required steps” said Silke Mooldijk, the author of the analysis, from the Climate Action Tracker partner organisation NewClimate Institute.

“There seems no real will in the aviation sector to reduce their own emissions to anything like zero, despite the Paris Agreement being clear that all sectors need to do so.”

The CAT analysis finds that most international or national efforts to address aviation emissions rely on carbon offsets, raising concerns about lack of permanence and additionality. There is very limited focus on reducing demand from flying, or reducing actual emissions other than using offsets.

In 2018, just 1% of the global population was responsible for 50% of CO2 emissions from air travel.

The four biggest international aviation emitters are the European Union, the United States, China and the United Kingdom, together responsible for a quarter of CO2 emissions from international aviation. The CAT analysis examines the policies from these four, and finds flaws in all of them. China has no policies at all to address international aviation. (See country action section of analysis)

The UK, for example, has a “Jet Zero” policy that, despite its name, would not bring emissions to zero, and covers outgoing flights only. The UK’s policy plans for an increase in demand of 70% by 2050, which would increase emissions by almost 40% between 2019 and 2050. Its strategy relies almost entirely on offsetting schemes and carbon capture technologies that are not yet mature.

“The limited global potential for capturing and storing CO2 should be used to bring global emissions to net zero, rather than to facilitate a stark increase in aviation sector emissions in one of the world’s wealthiest countries,” said Sarah Heck, from Climate Analytics, the other CAT partner organisation.

The analysis also found that although non-CO2 emissions and impacts account for an estimated two thirds of aviation’s net radiative forcing impact, ICAO, IATA and national governments have no or very limited strategies to address either the NOx emissions, or the effect on climate from cirrus contrails.

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