Industry warns ICAO has no time to waste to endorse net zero by 2050


The global aviation industry is reasonably optimistic that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) will endorse a target to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 at the organization’s 41st general assembly, which is now under way. 

But even if ICAO establishes that baseline, challenges remain as differences between developing and developed countries need to be resolved.

And there is also the reality that the creation of a formal target will do little to satisfy critics, who argue that the industry is not moving fast enough to cut its emissions. 


  • The industry is optimistic that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) will approve a Long Term Aspirational Goal (LTAG) of net zero emissions by 2050 at the organisation’s 41st assembly.
  • Developing countries could continue to put up resistance to the LTAG.
  • Some critics believe the LTAG won’t go far enough.

The industry is hopeful that ICAO will approve a long term emissions target

During a recent briefing, IATA Director General Willie Walsh remarked that on a scale of zero to five, his level of optimism of ICAO endorsing a Long Term Aspirational Goal (LTAG) of net zero by 2050 was a four, with five being the highest level of confidence. 

In an Aviation Week webinar before the assembly, the Executive Director of the Air Transport Action Group Haldane Dodd explained that if he had been asked at the start of the year what would happen at the ICAO assembly: “I think that we would have gotten a goal, and that probably it would have been net zero. I think the big question would have been about the year in which that might be achieved”, he said. 

But he was more encouraged after an ICAO high level meeting on the LTAG that occurred at the end of Jul-2022, which resulted in a draft proposal for net zero emissions in 2050. 

“That [the proposal] has been taken up by the council and put forward as a resolution for the assembly”, said Mr Dodd, adding that those are very encouraging signs. 

Mr Walsh warned that if anything shy of ICAO approving the LTAG “will be viewed as a failure,” noting that the ICAO assembly only occurs every three years and “I don’t think we have three years to wait for governments to align around a common goal for 2050.” 

Some countries have different timeframes for reaching net zero 

Mr Dodd noted that those positive developments do not mean that everything is “done and dusted.”

He explained that, “There’s always the opportunity for some countries to come in and try to slow discussions to a certain extent.” 

China has the potential to be one of those countries challenging the LTAG.

During the IATA General Meeting in Oct-2021 when the association announced its 2050 target for net zero emissions, China Southern Airlines suggested a 2060 timeframe, which is in line with the Chinese government’s emissions goals. 

Other countries have also set slightly different net zero goals, said Mr Dodd.

Saudi Arabia’s target is 2060 and India’s timeline is 2070. He said China is likely to push back against at LTAG after it voiced opposition to the target at the high level meeting in Jul-2022. 

“That does not mean China is not for the development of sustainable aviation growth”, Mr Dodd stated. He explained that the country was undertaking research and deployment of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) to a certain extent, “but they want to do it at their own pace and in their own way.” 

He said that by 2050 all countries would be putting the right policies into place to move forward in achieving net zero emissions.

'There will not be any specific goals'...'but at least we’re all flying in the same direction'

Some of the political challenges between developed and developing countries have been foreseen in the lead up to the ICAO assembly.

In the resolution put forward to the assembly, “...there will not be any specific goals attached to each state individually, that states will be able to operate at their own speed, but with assistance from other countries to get to net zero by 2050 or thereabouts”, said Mr Dodd.  

Perhaps some countries will reach their emission targets before 2050, and maybe some are a bit later than that, he added, “but at least we’re all flying in the same direction, and setting that global policy framework is really important for us”, he said. 

Difference will remain in place if ICAO states agree to LTAG 

Other entities that are pushing for more aggressive action have different views.

“It’s tricky”, said Jo Dardenne, Aviation Manager at (EU) Transport & Environment.

Joining Mr Dodd in the webinar, she stated “We see how China, Brazil and India and other states are treating ICAO and CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation)”. 

CORSIA is ICAO’s program to address CO2 emissions. It was designed to pivot the industry away from a patchwork of national and regional initiatives to a more global scheme. 

Ms Dardenne pointed out that those countries did not say they would join CORSIA in the voluntary phase which spans from 2021 to 2026, and “we don’t know if they’ll actually implement it in 2027 when it is obligatory for everyone”. 

Countries should 'not be bullied' by 'countries that have less ambition'

She said that what should happen in Europe and other countries and regions that want to go further is “to not be bullied by, not to be delayed by these countries that have less ambition”. 

More broadly, she said that if ICAO does adopt the goal of net zero emissions by 2050, it will be non-binding.

“It doesn’t actually force states to commit to emission reductions”, Ms Dardenne said. 

“The issue that we’re faced with is, sure having a goal might be better than having nothing at all, but let’s not pretend that this will cure aviation’s climate disease…we need much more ambition”, she said. 

With or without a LTAG, the path to sustainability remains a long one

It is possible that negotiations among ICAO’s 193 member states will last up until the assembly’s 10-day duration ends, given the difference of opinions that exist between some developing and developed countries. 

And even if those negotiations produce a LTAG, much work remains for the industry to achieve its sustainability targets. 

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