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Decarbonizing aviation gains momentum with new net-zero goal

Decarbonizing aviation gains momentum with new net-zero goal

The ambitious new target signals that the aviation sector’s climate impact cannot be overlooked.

Today, the UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) adopted a goal for international aviation to reach net zero by 2050 during its 41st General Assembly in Montreal, Canada. This bold new target indicates that the sector’s climate impact can no longer be ignored. With this major climate development, ICAO’s 193 member states committed to finally putting aviation on a pathway compatible with the Paris Agreement goal to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5° C.

The aviation sector contributes around 5% of global greenhouse gases (CO2 and non-CO2) and demand for air travel is expected to triple by 2050. Adopting a global net-zero target for aviation provides assurance to states that have already introduced policies to address aviation’s climate impact that they are not alone. In fact, this move challenges others to act.

The 2050 target set by ICAO does not include specific emission reduction requirements for individual countries. Instead, it is left to ICAO member states to decide how they will reduce emissions from international aviation and contribute to the 2050 goal. This underscores the importance of action at the national level to establish or enhance strategies for aviation decarbonization that include comprehensive policy and regulation.

While philanthropic support has been critical to addressing climate impacts and accelerating action, the aviation sector has historically received little funding.

There are no silver bullets for aviation decarbonization. Efforts will include some combination of the scaling up of sustainable aviation fuel, including synthetic fuels; the electrification of short-haul flights; the development of hydrogen-powered aircraft; a shift in consumer behavior, including demand reduction and modal shifts; and the mitigation of non-CO2 effects, which are often overlooked.

ClimateWorks has long supported environmental organizations that comprise the International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation (ICSA). Together, the coalition acts as official civil society observers at ICAO and have contributed analysis and expertise to demonstrate that a pathway to net-zero aviation by 2050 is possible. This, in turn, helped drive the ambition that led to today’s announcement.

ICSA members will continue to engage at ICAO as the implementation phase begins, including calling for the adoption of interim targets and the consideration of non-CO2 effects in the goal. At the member state level, coalition members will continue their work to ensure the creation and adoption of ambitious plans that address the climate impact of aviation.

While philanthropic support has been critical to addressing climate impacts and accelerating action, the aviation sector has historically received little funding. According to the ClimateWorks transportation sector brief released in July 2021, only three funders are active in the aviation sector. ClimateWorks leads the only philanthropic program designed to address the climate impacts of aviation globally. While our grantmaking has contributed to progress on aviation decarbonization, we will need greater philanthropic investment to meet the challenge and opportunity of net-zero aviation.

Published October 7, 2022

Anna Stratton

Program Manager, Aviation