What do the UN-led talks on lower aviation emissions using cleaner fuels mean?

ICAO conference in Dubai agrees to a goal of 5% lower carbon emissions from global aviation industry by 2030 by using sustainable aviation fuels

Salvatore Sciacchitano, president of the ICAO Council, speaks during the opening ceremony of the CAAF/3 gathering held in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
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A UN-led conference in Dubai agreed on a target to reduce carbon emissions from global aviation by 5 per cent by 2030 through the use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), as a rebound in passenger traffic thrusts airlines' environmental impact into the spotlight.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO)'s third Conference on Alternative Aviation Fuels (CAAF/3) concluded in the emirate on Friday evening after delegates from more than 100 countries debated over five days on ways to boost the production of SAF, lower-carbon aviation fuels (LCAF) and other cleaner energy sources.

The gathering agreed on a global framework that would increase the supply and use of these cleaner fuels. This marks an interim target in the aviation industry's clean energy transition that is needed to achieve the long-term “aspirational” goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, adopted by the ICAO assembly in 2022.

“We have a historical agreement on the ICAO global framework on SAF, LCAF and other cleaner energies … which will certainly be a game-changer in the efforts towards the decarbonisation of aviation,” Viliame Gavoka, the elected CAAF/3 chairman who is also Fiji's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Tourism and Civil Aviation, told delegates.

“These are also the starting points for much more work to be done to achieve the various objectives agreed to this week.”

The ICAO Council's president Salvatore Sciacchitano called the agreement adopted in Dubai a “giant leap” in the international aviation industry's decarbonisation journey.

“Key elements of the framework include a collective vision for the clean energy transition, harmonised regulatory foundations, supporting implementation initiatives and improved access for financing related initiatives so that no country is left behind,” he said.

The National takes a closer look at the details of the decision, how it affects stakeholders from airlines to financiers, and what it means for airfares.

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What does the agreement made in Dubai entail?

The delegates reached an agreement late on Friday evening after hours of deliberation on the wording, particularly in relation to technology transfer that developing nations require to increase their SAF production capacity.

The global framework takes into account knowledge-transfer, access to low-cost financing, policy and planning, regulations and implementation tools for the development of SAF.

However, the agreement is not legally binding.

Asked how far the agreement will be applied by countries, airlines and fuel companies, ICAO secretary general Juan Carlos Salazar said that while the global framework is not mandatory, it “sends a positive message” in the right direction and sets a “global standard” for the aviation industry's practices.

Why is this agreement important?

With advanced technologies like electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft years away from becoming a reality, SAF is widely considered to be critical for the industry to achieve its climate goals. However, it remains in short supply and is very costly for airlines to buy compared to traditional jet fuel.

The CAAF/3 agreement sends a clear signal to policymakers, investors and fuel producers on the investment opportunities available in the aviation sector's energy transition, according to the ICAO.

It is the “first positive, concrete step” towards the decarbonisation of international aviation and sends a strong message to investors that the industry is serious about its environmental goals and the need to accelerate the production of SAF, Mr Salazar said.

The agreement highlights the “substantial and sustained investments” in SAF required from now until 2050, he said.

“This is another milestone moment for our sector … the 2030 quantitative goal and global framework reached here at CAAF/3 help fill in the details of our net-zero pathway,” said Haldane Dodd, executive director of the Air Transport Action Group.

The agreement “helps us provide another layer of certainty to unlock the capital needed and to help make it available to countries all around the world”.

“Now it is up to the finance community and energy sector to support the necessary infrastructure and start delivering SAF in ever increasing quantities, committing meaningful flows of capital towards the energy transition,” he added.

The ICAO agreement is also timely as it comes days before the Cop28 UN climate change summit starts in Dubai, demonstrating the aviation industry's near-term decarbonisation goals and signalling to fuel companies the huge demand for SAF for years to come.

“The outcome of CAAF/3 means that we can now go to Cop28 and wider audiences with a mission of partnership and a clear goal of what is needed in the short term,” Mr Dodd said.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is anchoring the Cop28 summit, said the ICAO global framework came during a year that has broken global temperature records.

“We hope this framework will provide the necessary incentives and assurances for accelerating production and deployment of SAF, LCAF and other cleaner energies,” a UNFCCC delegate said.

What does the agreement mean for airlines?

Global airlines are facing increased pressure from environmentalists to reduce their carbon footprint as passenger traffic inches closer towards pre-pandemic levels.

However, airlines unable to acquire adequate amounts of SAF to power their flights at affordable prices. Airlines’ demand for SAF, in line with their commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, exceeds the current availability of SAF.

Today the supply of SAF is limited to 0.2 per cent of airlines’ jet fuel consumption in 2023, marginally up from 0.1 per cent in 2022, according to the International Air Transport Association (Iata). All SAF produced in 2022 was purchased by airlines, at an additional cost to the industry of about $500 million, Iata data shows.

The industry body said it expects governments to urgently put in place policies to increase SAF supply.

“Airlines are ready with open arms to catch the SAF production that will result from such policies,” Marie Owens Thomsen, Iata's senior vice president of sustainability and chief economist, told CAAF/3 delegates.

“Iata wishes to see maximum SAF production on every continues and access to this SAF production to all airlines around the world. Where government money leads, private money will follow.”

Ms Thomsen urged governments to balance the support they provide to the energy sector, at the very least with equal backing for all energy sources but preferably skewed in favour of renewables to ensure SAF gets its fair share in line with the ICAO goals.

She called on governments to enact policies that are “positive, not punitive” when maximising SAF production.

“By promoting competition and fostering innovation governments can ensure that SAF replaces as much as 80 per cent of fossil fuel use in air transportation by 2050,” she said.

“With only 26 years to go, the time to act is truly now – let's make it happen together.”

Will flying become more expensive?

After surviving the Covid-19 pandemic, the aviation industry's worst crisis in its history, airlines are now grappling with a multitrillion-dollar bill to fight their next existential threat: decarbonisation.

They are likely to pass on some of that cost to passengers in the massive mission of cleaning up flying, leading to more expensive airfares on some routes.

While it is “too early” to tell the impact of the ICAO agreement on travellers, increasing the production of SAF will help bring down the cost of the alternative fuel, Mr Salazar said.

Ms Thomsen echoed this, saying that the larger the scale of SAF production, the more likely its price will come down and therefore help to mitigate some of the cost that is passed on to passengers.

What were the various countries' positions?

The US representative told the closing session of the ICAO meeting that the agreement has “the potential to signal to the global fuel and investment communities that the aviation sector is serious about moving forward on the path to decarbonisation” using SAF.

While the agreement is “not legally binding”, the US will work to ensure it receives broad attention in the investment community and across top government levels.

Meanwhile Russia and China aired their concerns about the economic impact of the agreement, particularly on developing countries.

The China representative told the ICAO meeting that the agreement would increase airlines' operating costs and pose a threat to food security in developing nations.

Saudi Arabia and Iraq also expressed their reservations about the target and the date of reducing aviation's carbon emissions.

Updated: November 26, 2023, 6:03 AM