The recently-concluded COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow saw the launch of a new coalition focused on bringing down aviation emissions.
While relatively light on details and concrete actions, the signatories of the International Aviation Climate Ambition Coalition (IACAC) declaration vowed to “advance ambitious actions to reduce aviation CO2 emissions.”
Announced by the UK Government, the IACAC declaration voiced support for the “development and deployment” of both sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and “innovative new low- and zero-carbon aircraft technologies that can reduce aviation CO2 emissions.”
Joining the United Kingdom as signatories of the declaration were Burkina Faso, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, Finland, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Maldives, Malta, Morocco, New Zealand, Norway, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and the United States. Collectively, these countries are estimated to account for 40 percent of global aviation emissions.
The signing nations also committed to “ensuring the maximum effectiveness” of the industry’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) scheme, which officially kicked off at the outset of 2021.
CORSIA aims to achieve carbon-neutral growth through the purchase of carbon offsets. The plan would stabilise the aviation industry’s annual net emissions at around 915 million tonnes of CO2.
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The programme has long been controversial, with environmental groups and even industry leaders pointing to its voluntary nature and the fact that that programme doesn’t cover domestic flights, which account for a third of aviation emissions.
In response to the IACAC declaration, the anti-flying advocacy group Stay Grounded said “relying on CORSIA to reduce flight emissions is like waiting for flying pigs” while Greenpeace said the announcement was “full of scams like offsetting”.
But proponents of CORSIA argue that it is not only a vital part of aviation’s decarbonisation process but one of the most realistic options currently available, given that the widespread use of SAF and the viability of electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft are still years from becoming reality.
When the Satair Knowledge Hub caught up with Finnair VP of Sustainability Anne Larilhati at MRO Europe, she said “different market measures and compensation opportunities” need to be a part of the industry’s all-of-the-above approach for the foreseeable future.
“Aviation is going to have a sort of a slow next five years and we will be relying quite a lot on offsets,” she said, adding that the CORSIA programme with “bridge the gap” until SAF and non-fuel burning engines become more prevalent.
Larilhati said that within just a few short years the momentum will shift and “there's going to be more action on energy efficiency and fuels and less on the offsetting side.”
The IACAC declaration could hasten the development and usage of SAF, which currently only accounts for less than one percent of all aviation fuel.
The current uptake of SAF is nowhere near where it needs to be if the industry is to hit its goal of net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. At the recent IATA general assembly, it was clear that the industry is heavily relying on SAF to hit its target.
“A potential scenario is that 65% of [emissions in 2050] will be abated through sustainable aviation fuels,” IATA director general Willie Walsh said. He added, however, that the industry’s actual decarbonisation path “will depend on what solutions are the most cost-effective at any particular time.”
The IACAC declaration commits to “promoting the development and deployment [...] of sustainable aviation fuels that reduce lifecycle emissions and contribute to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular avoiding competition with food production for land use and water supply.”
The COP26 summit also included an announcement that a new co-called Aviators Group has joined the Sustainable Aviation Buyers Alliance (SABA), a venture launched earlier this year by RMI and the Environmental Defense Fund to spur investments in SAF. The newest members of the initiative include industry heavyweights United, JetBlue, Alaska Airlines and Amazon Air. Other SABA members include Boeing, Netflix, Microsoft, Meta (formerly known as Facebook), and Deloitte.
The announcement of the new SABA members was positioned as an effective means of stimulating the supply and development of SAF.
“Making sustainable travel a reality will require extensive investment in low-carbon technologies such as sustainable aviation fuel by our entire industry, and through SABA we can work collaboratively with our customers on real solutions to address climate change,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said.
“While SAF is well-proven to meaningfully reduce air travel emissions, it has long suffered from supply and cost challenges that keep overall usage low,” said JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes, who added that having so many airlines join SABA would “hopefully enable rapid scale-up of a SAF industry.”
The IACAC declaration and SABA announcements came on COP26’s “Transport Day”, where emissions from the transport sector were front and centre at the global climate conference.
According to the International Energy Association, the transport sector accounts for roughly one-fourth of all CO2 released from fuel combustion. The sector’s global emissions continue to increase, with a recent International Transport Forum report projecting that transport activity will more than double by 2050.
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