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New planes and biofuel: How can airlines reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050?

by Emma Batha | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 14 September 2020 18:46 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A British Airways plane lands at London's Heathrow Airport February 13, 2002. REUTERS/Stephen Hird

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Oneworld is the first global airline alliance to unite behind a common target to achieve carbon neutrality

A group of major airlines has committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 in what is seen as a significant announcement in a year when the industry has been hit hard by COVID-19 lockdowns.

Oneworld, whose 13 members include American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific Airways, Japan Airlines and Qantas, is the first global airline alliance to unite behind a common target to achieve carbon neutrality.

How significant is this?

Aviation accounts for just over 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but this is predicted to grow as air travel increases, driven by rises in population, wealth and international trade.

What was once a marginal source of emissions has become increasingly critical to efforts to fight climate change, according to the International Energy Agency.

Some climate experts predict aviation emissions will double or even triple over the 2015-2050 period. 

The industry already has a target to cut emissions by 50% by 2050 compared with 2005 levels.

But the announcement by oneworld - which carries almost 540 million passengers a year on a combined fleet of more than 3,600 aircraft - is far more ambitious.

How will the airlines meet this goal?

Initiatives include investing in more fuel-efficient aircraft, developing sustainable aviation fuels, reducing waste and carbon off-setting.

Several airlines have already taken steps:

- British Airways is part of an initiative to turn household and commercial waste into renewable fuel. A plant being built in northeast England plans to start producing commercial volumes of sustainable aviation fuel in 2024. 

- American Airlines has introduced hundreds of more fuel-efficient aircraft and begun using sustainable aviation fuel.

New technology aircraft are about 15-20% more fuel efficient than older models, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Sustainable aviation fuels will also have the potential to cut emissions by up to 80%.

- Australian airline Qantas is slashing its annual 30,000-tonne mountain of waste that ends up in landfill, including removing 100 million single-use plastics a year by replacing everything from cups and cutlery sets to headrest covers.


Carbon offsetting?

Experts say oneworld's announcement is significant because the sector is one of the hardest to decarbonise, but much will depend on whether the airlines reduce their emissions or just offset them.

Oneworld said it was up to individual airlines how they chose to cut emissions.   

The UN aviation agency is separately introducing a scheme called CORSIA that will allow airlines to largely offset their rising emissions from 2021 by buying carbon credits from designated environmental projects.

But Green groups are skeptical, saying CORSIA will allow airlines to keep emitting planet-warming carbon dioxide for years, while buying inexpensive credits.

What else can airlines do?

It may not be popular with passengers, but ensuring planes fly full is much better for the environment.

Many airlines are also watching their weight, for example by investing in lighter seats, according to IATA.

Route changes to cut flight times and measures to prevent unnecessary holding at airports likewise help planes reduce the fuel they burn.

The industry is also likely to look at introducing electric aircraft for shorter flights in the future, but the technology is not there yet.

What other ideas are out there?  

Making people who fly more pay more was one of the proposals made by a British citizens' assembly on tackling climate change this month. 

Some said any money raised from such taxes should be ring-fenced to support new air travel technologies. 

Other ideas mentioned in the assembly's report submitted to parliament included axing frequent flyer programmes or scrapping first and business class flights which create more emissions per person.

Related stories:

UK citizens' assembly wants 'fair' path to 2050 net-zero emissions goal

Flight shaming hits air travel as 'Greta effect' takes off

Long wait seen for electric planes despite historic first flight

(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)