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Global airlines must be made to pay for their carbon emissions to finance climate action and help distressed communities now, activists said during Cop28 in Dubai.
They demanded that airlines pay carbon tax or contribute to the newly created loss and damage fund to mitigate their environmental impact, especially on the poorer countries facing climate disasters.
The industry, which has set a target of net-zero emissions by 2050, has an urgent responsibility to act quickly, activists said.
US-based Eko, an organisation that holds corporations accountable for bad behaviour, from polluting the environment to dodging taxes, started a global campaign in August targeting the airline industry for its climate-warming emissions.
"When the loss and damage fund was established and governments started to make pledges, we saw this as an incredible opportunity for us to now start putting pressure on industries because there's a new mechanism for us to get industries to start paying their fair share for the pollution that they're causing," Rewan Al-Haddad, campaign director at Eko, told The National.
While the 2050 net-zero goal is "very ambitious and very welcome", the industry's planned measures to reach that target will "fall massively short", she said.
Improving fuel efficiency, relying on sustainable aviation fuels and using carbon offsets "are good in theory, but they are not good enough in order to get the industry to be responsible for the pollution it is causing. For that reason we decided to focus on the airlines first".
Since countries agreed to a deal on the first day of Cop28 to create the long-awaited loss and damage fund to help poorer countries deal with the effects of climate change, total contributions have reached $726 million.
The airline industry accounts for about 3 per cent of global CO2 emissions. If global aviation was a country, it would be among the 10 biggest emitters, according to the European Commission.
Emissions from international aviation in 2023 are projected to increase 28 per cent year-on-year, as the industry continues to recover from Covid-19 pandemic lows, according to a report by the Global Carbon Project science team this week.
Eko is calling for industries such as aviation to make proportional contributions to the loss and damage fund but without being prescriptive in how companies choose to make payments.
"The airline industry could easily contribute to the fund in a proportional way, we're not calling for a one-off donation because that's just not good enough," Ms Al-Haddad said.
"But, for example, a percentage of business class tickets is something that we would be very happy to see," she said.
At the same time, EU climate commissioner Wopke Hoekstra has called for a tax on aviation fuel, as governments look to levies on polluting industries to finance climate action.
Green taxes will backfire
The aviation industry acknowledges its environmental footprint and says it is working on several pathways to decarbonisation but that levies are not the answer.
"The way to do this is a shift towards sustainable aviation fuels and the next generation of technology," Haldane Dodd, executive director of the Air Transport Action Group, told The National.
"Additional levies on flying being discussed at Cop28 are designed to just raise money rather than actually reduce emissions, whereas the significant need for investment in new fuels and more efficient aircraft will cut CO2 – these are the areas which should be the focus for air transport."
The International Air Transport Association (Iata), a group representing about 290 airlines, or 82 per cent of total air traffic, said that the vast majority of green taxes that are applied or being considered are imposed on top of existing carbon-pricing instruments and governments must avoid double charging emissions.
"Try to identify all the industries that have positively focused on trying to reduce the impact of their emissions on the environment and I challenge you to find an industry more proactive than the aviation industry – they have committed to going net-zero by 2050, knowing that the price tag for this is in the trillions of dollars," Kamil Al Awadhi, Iata regional vice president for Africa and the Middle East, said on Thursday.
Governments and oil companies need to ramp up the production of sustainable aviation fuels, airports need to improve air traffic management and aircraft manufacturers are producing more fuel-efficient jets, but they still contribute to emissions, he said.
"Everybody has to do their part."
Chris Raymond, chief sustainability officer at Boeing, said that the airline industry "doesn't get enough credit" for its hard work on reducing fuel burn through more efficient jet technologies and use of AI at flight boarding gates to reduce time taxiing on the ground.
"If we're going to tax aviation to make it cleaner, then we've always advocated for keeping the money in aviation ... so that the money can go towards things that will reduce emissions like sustainable aviation fuel scale-up in a country or a region," he said in a media roundtable during Cop28.
"If it doesn't stay in the sector, then aviation is probably not going to get improved as fast as it could."