Blog by Jasna Šelih, Stewardship Specialist (Climate Action 100+), PRI, originally published on unpri.org
As the world starts to recover from COVID-19, the aviation industry — hit hard by the pandemic, and still feeling its effects — is anxious to get passenger numbers back up again. Doing so must not come at the cost of global climate goals and the sector’s own climate commitments. To ensure a more sustainable future, air travel needs to be redefined for a post-pandemic world.
Decarbonising the aviation sector is key in the global transition to net zero
Climate science is clear that global warming must be limited to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change. To meet this objective, global emissions need to fall by 45% by 2030 and the world’s economy must transition to net zero by 2050.
The decarbonisation of the aviation sector plays a key role in this. The industry is responsible for about 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. In fact, if commercial aviation were a country, it would be the sixth highest CO2 emitter in the world. What’s more, emissions from aviation are projected to grow rapidly in the coming decades, with the sector’s contribution to global CO2 emissions expected to increase to 16% by 2050.
We now know what the aviation sector needs to do to limit global warming to 1.5°C
The publication of the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Net Zero by 2050 report in May 2021 made a credible 1.5°C pathway for the industry available for the first time.
This is why we’ve released an updated Climate Action 100+ global sector strategy for aviation. This report maps out how the industry can align with the 1.5°C pathway set out by IEA and outlines the actions that investors should take to accelerate the sector’s transition to net zero.
The report builds on the PRI’s Investor Expectations Statement on Climate Change for Airlines and Aerospace Companies and the first global sector strategy for aviation from Climate Action 100+, published in January 2021.
A massive scale-up of sustainable aviation fuels will be required
If the aviation sector is to achieve the required CO2 emissions reductions, we will need to see a massive ramp-up of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), far exceeding today’s usage levels. This will present a huge challenge to the sector: under the IEA 1.5°C scenario, SAF will need to represent 16% of the aviation sector’s energy consumption by 2030. Given that in 2020, SAF met less than 0.1% of the sector’s overall fuel demand, this will clearly be no easy task.
The report sets out the actions investors should take to promote the scale-up of SAF in the aviation industry. Among other steps, investors are encouraged to push aviation companies to set SAF targets in line with the IEA’s 1.5°C scenario and ensure they are only using SAF which offers significant life cycle emissions reductions and does not have any accompanying adverse social or environmental impacts.
Demand for air travel will have to be constrained if 1.5°C is to remain within reach
Air traffic cannot keep increasing if the world is to limit global temperature rise to safe levels. The IEA’s Net Zero by 2050 scenario shows that even if all other decarbonisation measures in the aviation sector are maximised, some demand management will be needed to keep 1.5°C within reach. Countries such as France are already taking measures to ban some domestic flight routes which can be completed by train, and many people are seeking to travel in a more sustainable way, as demonstrated by the growth in ‘no-fly’ or ‘flight shame’ movements.
IEA suggests that capping demand for business travel and long-haul leisure flights at pre-pandemic levels and shifting demand to high-speed rail where possible is key in bringing about the required emissions reductions. While these measures would certainly be unpopular with the airline industry, they would only impact 12% of all air travel, and without them, residual emissions from aviation in 2050 could be over double than what is required to reach 1.5°C.
As a result, investors should call on aviation companies to demonstrate that they are not lobbying against stronger policy and regulatory action in this area, disclose how they are planning for different demand scenarios and collaborate with rail operators on modal shifts, among other actions.
Carbon offsetting is not a credible decarbonisation strategy for aviation companies
Carbon offsetting has been a core part of aviation companies’ decarbonisation strategies to date. However, given the huge emissions reductions needed for the global transition to net zero, superficial fixes such as offsets simply won’t do: under the IEA pathway, aviation companies cannot use carbon offsetting to get to 1.5°C.
Consequently, investors will need to encourage aviation companies to set plans for phasing out offsets and shift focus to absolute emissions reductions, meaningfully transforming their business to adapt to a net-zero world, rather than attempting to offset their way out of the climate crisis.
Increased ambition in investor engagements with aviation companies
We have already seen several positive steps taken by the aviation sector in the past year. The leading aviation industry groups, IATA and ATAG, have both set 2050 net zero targets and laid out their own 1.5°C pathways. All but two of the Climate Action 100+ aviation focus companies now have a net zero by 2050 target.
Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go, and more decisive action must be taken now. With IEA signalling that the aviation sector’s emissions need to peak by 2025 to ensure a 1.5°C future, the next few years will be crucial for investor engagement with the sector.
Moving forward, we will work to ensure that the new report catalyses increased ambition in investor engagements with the aviation sector and pushes aviation companies to set out and implement robust 1.5°C-aligned transition plans. Climate Action 100+ investors will be encouraged to use the new sector strategy in their engagements with aviation focus companies and implement the priority actions in the report.
The global sector on aviation is produced by PRI as part of the Climate Action 100+ global sector strategies workstream. Climate Action 100+ is the world’s largest investor engagement initiative focused on tackling climate change. Please get in touch if you have questions or feedback on the report.
 Under the IEA’s carbon accounting approach, negative emissions (i.e. activities that remove CO2 from the atmosphere, such as offsets) are allocated to the sector in which they occur and hence not available for use by other sectors.
 Climate Action 100+ airline and aerospace focus companies include Airbus, Air France-KLM, American Airlines, Boeing, Delta Air Lines, Lockheed Martin, Qantas Airways, Raytheon Technologies, Rolls-Royce Holdings and United Airlines.
 Against a 2010 baseline.
 Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) include: (1) sustainable biofuels and (2) ‘synthetic fuels’ defined as low-emissions synthetic hydrogen- based fuels. Sustainable biofuels refer to ‘advanced’ biofuels that, unlike conventional biofuels, do not compete with food production and offer significant life cycle emissions reductions relative to fossil-based jet fuel.