Kate Mackenzie The airlines’ pledge: What’s a 2050 commitment mean?

The world’s major airlines, led by trade group IATA, say they will commit to reducing net emissions by 50 per cent by 2050. The industry, according to the Guardian, is driven by a fear that if they don’t volunteer, restrictions will be forced upon them – and indeed a UK government advisory committee called for a compulsory emissions cap just a couple of weeks ago.

However the crucial “baseline” date in the statement is from 2005 levels – that is, whereas Kyoto commitments (and most commitments aimed at Copenhagen) are based on 1990 levels. A later baseline makes the overall target less ambitious.

The commitment, which will be announced by British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh in New York, on Tuesday, includes the following pledges:

–  to improve CO2 efficiency by an average of 1.5 per cent per
year up to 2020;

–  to stabilize net CO2 emissions from 2020 (ie achieve carbon-
neutral growth);

–  to reduce net CO2 emissions by 50 per cent by 2050, compared
with 2005 levels;

–  to submit to the UN a framework and mechanisms to deliver these
targets by November 2010.

The year 2050 is a long, long way off, especially in climate change. When China recently said its emissions would peak by 2050, the reaction was mostly one of disappointment (although optimists pointed out that at least they had named a date, for the first time). The reason is that 2050 is largely seen as being too late for total world emissions to begin falling – the IPCC and other scientific estimates say that a peak later than 2020 is too risky.

There is however the 1.5 per cent cut per year over the next 10 years. But how will it make any of those reductions? The airline industry is not in great shape at the moment, despite the predictions of long-term growth. Replacing existing planes with newer, more efficient ones is an expensive and drawn-out process. And while some test-flights using biofuels have been carried out, a big shift away from fossil fuels won’t happen quickly. Hence the use of the word ‘net’, which Guardian report suggests means some of the reductions will be done by buying carbon offsets elsewhere. And those who don’t like offsets generally are, of course, critical.

Airlines operating in the EU are already set to be covered by the EU Emissions Trading Scheme from 2012. An impact assessment carried out for the European Commission in 2006 estimated that if all costs of ETS participation were passed on to passengers, tickets could be €1.80 to €9 higher in 2020.

Another point: are the small airlines on board with this? IATA represents all the large carriers, but there are many more small operators – and carbon analysts have pointed out to us previously that while the bigger airlines, accustomed to hedging prices and so on, were fairly well-prepared for coming under the EU ETS, many smaller airlines had barely heard of it. In which case, how will they co-operate with this commitment?

Related links:

Airlines vow to halve carbon emissions by 2050 (Guardian, 22/09/09)
Call for airline emissions caps (FT, 08/09/09)