Global airlines must adopt tougher rules on reducing carbon emissions once flying restarts after the coronavirus crisis, the head of the industry’s trade body has warned.

The International Air Transport Association, Iata, is in talks with its members, nearly 300 carriers around the world, over new climate change pledges, chief executive Alexandre de Juniac told the Financial Times.

An ambitious pledge to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 may form part of a declaration at the trade body’s annual meeting in June, de Juniac said.

This would mark a bold step up from the industry’s current targets, set in 2009, that include halving 2005 emissions by 2050 and carbon neutral growth after 2020.

“The crisis has not diverted us from sticking to these commitments and we have not changed anything, but we think that we should probably go further, so we are working on that.”

Although de Juniac cautioned there was no guarantee carriers would reach agreement on net zero carbon emissions, he said the need for action had grown over the past decade.

“That is a point on which everybody is working . . . but we have still to work on that.”

A cornerstone of the industry’s response to climate change is the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, Corsia, which will require airlines to buy credits to offset their emissions. 

Some European airlines are already planning to go further, with targets to reach net zero by 2050 through the use of more energy efficient engines and sustainable aviation fuels.

However, production will have to scale up substantially to make a difference as sustainable fuels currently constitute less than 1 per cent of total consumption across the industry. 

This makes it one of the hardest sectors to decarbonise, despite only contributing 2-3 per cent of global emissions.

Airline groups are also split over how far to go, with some carriers pushing back on a net zero pledge, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions.

Airbus is planning to have a zero-emission, hydrogen-powered aircraft ready for service by 2035

Carriers from developing countries in particular are unwilling to sign up to tough commitments, while they are still growing, one of the people said.

Another big problem for the industry is how to measure commitments to become carbon neutral.

Grazia Vittadini, Airbus chief technology officer, said the industry is already halfway there against the 1990 measurement used by the Paris Agreement on climate change, but this is based on emissions per passenger.

Paul Stein, Rolls-Royce chief technology officer, said the industry’s goal should instead focus on avoiding the introduction of more carbon into the atmosphere.

“The end goal is net zero to stop climate change, and those of us that are part of that endeavour are driven by that as the end game,” he told the FT.

De Juniac was speaking as he prepared to step down as the head of Iata at the end of this month, when he will hand over the reins to Willie Walsh, former head of IAG, the owner of British Airways.

De Juniac, a former chief executive of Air France, said the industry was suffering through the worst phase of the coronavirus crisis, with vaccines yet to be rolled out in significant numbers globally and borders closed with governments “panicked” by variants of Covid-19.

He expects a recovery in European travel by the beginning of the summer, but is pessimistic over the ability of governments to work together to form a coherent framework to reopen borders.

“Co-ordination has been a complete failure, everywhere in the world, a complete failure,” he said.

However, he is optimistic the industry can eventually recover from the pandemic, thanks to passengers’ undimmed desire to travel.

“People want to live normally again, they want to fly again, the push we have from people wanting to fly again is enormous.”

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