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Airlines pledge to halve carbon emissions by 2050(?!)

Ahead of the climate change summit in Copenhagen this December, the aviation industry has tried to seize the initiative by making a ‘pledge’ to reduce emissions.

The British Airways chief executive, Willie Walsh, has told a UN climate meeting in New York that airports and aircraft companies will cut emissions to 50% below 2005 levels by 2050. Forecasts for emissions growth from the sector have previously suggested that emissions could rise up to fourfold if not appropriately controlled.

In the UK, there has been a lot of publicity surrouding the announcement, made by Walsh on behalf of the International Air Transport Association (IATA). AEF director Tim Johnson was interviewed for BBC business news, while AEF board member Jeff Gazzard gave two radio interviews and had a letter printed in the Guardian.

IATA’s proposals, which have yet to be approved by the UN, are are as follows. We give AEF comments on each.    

* To reduce net carbon dioxide emissions by 50% by 2050, compared with 2005 levels.

This is far less than the target for other sectors, given international agreement to achieve global cuts of 50% on 1990 levels (not 2005), with G8 countries agreeing to 80% cuts. It means that other sectors will have to make reductions even greater than 80% to make up for aviation.

Net ‘cuts’ would in any case allow ‘emissions trading’ and ‘offsets’. This means that the industry need NOT actually cut its emissions by 50%, if it can buy offsets or carbon credits by negotiating with other sectors.

* To make all industry growth carbon-neutral by 2020.

A commitment to stabilise emissions by 2020 would allow emissions to continue growing until then! BBC business editor Robert Peston has wryly observed “The industry does not expect to stabilise emissions until 2020. Which most psychologists would say is too far away to serve as much of a deadline.” After 2020 emissions would have to be even more drastically cut to meet the aspirational target for 2050.

* To achieve a 1.5% average annual improvement in fuel efficiency to 2020.

A 1-2% improvement in fuel efficiency (a 1-2% reduction in CO2 per passenger km) is what airlines have historically achieved regardless of any environmental targets, this being acheived through technoloical improvements in new aircraft. But as traffic has been growing at around 4-5% per year, total emissions have been increasing rapidly. A 1-5% fuel efficiency target would simply reflect the trend.

* To submit plans for joining a global carbon trading scheme to the UN by November 2010.

Having failed to get international aviation included in the Kyoto protocol, pressure is on make sure that aviation does not slip through the net again at Copenhagen. The aviation industry’s ‘pledges’ are intended to pre-empt Copenhagen and substitute for real action and strong targets for aviation a virtually meaningless plan.