Global airlines have adopted a resolution to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, as they come under increasing pressure from climate change activists over the impact of their operations, while also trying to revive air travel demand in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The target will cost nearly $2 trillion by 2050 and will require "very significant financial investment", Willie Walsh, director general of International Air Transport Association (Iata) told reporters in Boston at the trade body's annual general meeting on Monday.
"Achieving sustainable global connectivity cannot be accomplished on the backs of airlines alone," he said. "All parts of the aviation industry must work together within a supportive government policy framework to deliver the massive changes that are needed."
The new commitment will be in line with the Paris Agreement goal of limiting the rise of global temperatures to 1.5°C and comes as the industry seeks to build back greener from the pandemic.
Iata set out a strategy to achieve its target through the use of sustainable aviation fuels, new aircraft technology, more efficient operations and infrastructure and developing energy sources such as electric and hydrogen power. Other options include carbon capture and credible carbon off-setting schemes.
Mr Walsh said the current airline targets "aren't ambitious enough" while the new resolution is a "bold, audacious commitment" that is also a necessity.
The resolution faced some complaints from Chinese airlines, which are looking at a different timeline of achieving net-zero emissions by 2060.
Airbus chief executive Guillaume Faury said countries must be aligned for the plan to succeed.
"If each country moves forward with a different objective and a different system, it will not work," he said, underscoring the importance of a unified global framework.
Iata highlighted the magnitude of the challenge to decarbonise aviation. About 10 billion passengers are expected to fly in 2050, which means the industry will need to abate 1.8 gigatons of carbon in that year.
Under Iata's plan, the use of sustainable aviation fuels would contribute 65 per cent toward achieving net-zero carbon by 2050, new aircraft technologies (such as electric or hydrogen propulsion) would contribute 13 per cent, off-setting or carbon capture 19 per cent and improving infrastructure and operations (particularly air traffic management) would contribute 3 per cent.
Iata called on industry partners including plane manufacturers, governments, oil companies, researchers, airports and passengers for help in reaching its goals.
It urged planemakers to accelerate their work on electric and hydrogen planes. It also called on oil companies to deliver sustainable aviation fuels at a larger scale and better prices.
Sustainable aviation fuel is currently about 3 to 4 times more expensive than traditional jet fuel. Governments can also play a big role in setting policies to encourage research and development in new technologies.