Iata chief on achieving net-zero target: ‘The ball can’t keep getting passed around’

Exclusive: Oil majors need to ramp up the production of sustainable aviation fuels to help airlines cut emissions, Willie Walsh says

Airline partners from oil companies, to engine makers, plane manufacturers, air traffic controllers and others must do their part in helping the industry to achieve its accelerated climate goals, according to the director general of the International Air Transport Association.

Mr Walsh pressed these partners to contribute in helpIng the industry achieve its net-zero carbon emissions goal, rather than laying the responsibility and cost squarely on carriers' shoulders as they seek to change public perceptions about the industry's environmental impact.

“The ball can’t keep getting passed around, that’s the issue,” Willie Walsh told The National on the sidelines of last week's Iata annual general meeting in Boston.

Among the intermediate steps towards reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the most important will be for oil majors to ramp up the production of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) available to airlines, he added.

At the Iata meeting, member airlines pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions from their operations by 2050, aligning air transport with the objectives of the 2015 Paris Accord to limit global warming to 1.5°C. The first milestone towards that target is in 2025, when SAF production, with appropriate government policy support, is expected to reach 7.9 billion litres, or 2 per cent of the total fuel requirement.

Airlines are committed to using more SAF, but it was “very difficult” to get a sufficient supply of sustainable biofuel and fuel suppliers have to be pushed to produce more of it, Mr Walsh said. Current engines can theoretically run on 50 per cent sustainable blends.

“Flights are operating with sustainable biofuels, but it’s not at 50 per cent; it’s at about 30 per cent because that’s all the supply that they can get,” he said.

Mr Walsh criticised some oil companies’ announcements to produce extra litres of SAF without any follow-up or action, saying the importance of climate goals has now “gone beyond words”.

“People see that the problem is the airline. They don’t look behind the airline to say, ‘Well, hang on, we don’t produce the fuel, we don’t build the engines, we don’t build the aircraft’," Mr Walsh said. “It’s not that you have to push the airlines. We’re there.”

The Iata chief also urged air navigation service providers to take action to help the industry reach its climate target.

“We hear ANSPs say that they’re committed to net-zero by 2050, and we say, ’That’s great, but what are you going to do to achieve it?’ And they’re not going to do anything because they’re going to expect us to achieve it,“ Mr Walsh said. “And I’m saying sorry, that’s not good enough.”

Air traffic management must also become more efficient to minimise fuel burn and reduce airlines’ costs, he said.

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What I’m saying is, sorry guys, if this is an industry heading in the same direction with a single goal, you’re all going to have to contribute
Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association

Airports also expect the airlines to deliver the climate targets, Mr Walsh said.

“What I’m saying is, sorry guys, if this is an industry heading in the same direction with a single goal, you’re all going to have to contribute. The idea that you can sit back and expect airlines to pay for it all is nonsense. For one, we don’t have the money. We’re an industry that was bordering on bankruptcy,” Mr Walsh said. “So it’s not good enough that you’re making these very nice public statements but you’re not prepared to deliver on what needs to be delivered.”

Sustainability was the main theme dominating the panels and discussions at the 77th Iata meeting, where airlines accelerated their climate goals as they come under increasing pressure from environmental activists and politicians.

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We’re not doing this to satisfy the critics, we’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do and we’re doing this because we believe that we can achieve this
Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association

Asked if the new targets will satisfy the industry’s critics, Mr Walsh said there would be those who criticise airlines regardless, those who would like to see it constrained and others who would like to see it address the climate change issue.

“We’re not doing this to satisfy the critics, we’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do and we’re doing this because we believe that we can achieve this,” Mr Walsh said.

While the airline sector’s 2050 net-zero goal is challenging, the Iata board passed the resolution by a majority vote.

“It’s not without its challenges; I’m not going to convince anybody that it’s easy. The fact that we didn’t have a unanimous position in relation to supporting it should indicate to people that it’s more challenging,” Mr Walsh said. “It’s the first time ever in the history of Iata that something was adopted without a unanimous vote. From that point of view, it was a change.”

While the Iata board normally operates on consensus, the issue was “too important”, so a vote was taken and a majority decision was adopted.

Some members of the board said the industry could not afford to commit to the goals, while others believed the time frame was too aggressive or not soon enough. Others said SAF would not be available at the scale needed and some members wanted to pursue investment in other technologies.

“If you were to wait for everybody to get in the same place, you’d never get anywhere,” Mr Walsh said.

Middle East airlines were supportive of the decision and are doing a lot of work “behind the scenes” on sustainability, he said.

“There’s no hesitation on the part of the carriers in the Middle East to commit to this, none whatsoever.”

Updated: October 12th 2021, 5:50 AM
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