Aviation Industry Has Missed Climate Targets for 20 Years

A new report shows the targets move faster than the airplanes.

Dinner served onboard Huge Viking, 1972, First class chef and cabin atendant.
These people can afford a frequent flyer tax.

SAS Museet / Flickr / Creative Commons License

In 2017, futurist Alex Steffen coined the term "predatory delay," defining it as "the blocking or slowing of needed change, in order to make money off unsustainable, unjust systems in the meantime." I wrote at the time, "It is not delay from the absence of action, but delay as a plan of action—a way of keeping things the way they are for the people who are benefiting now, at the expense of the next and future generations." A terrific example of predatory delay is the aviation industry.

A new report—"Missed Targets: A Brief History of Aviation Climate Change Targets"—prepared for the United Kingdom-based climate action charity Possible says the aviation industry has missed all but one of the climate targets going back to 2000. The report, written by Jamie Beevor of Green Gumption and independent researcher Keith Alexander, covers the promises made in the years after the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 1999 special report on aviation from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The latter was first to spell out the impact of aviation on the climate.

IATA Targets

Missed Targets Report

The fun begins with this example from the International Air Transport Association (IATA)—the trade association for the world's airlines. Since 2000 it has variously promised a 50% improvement in efficiency, later reduced to 25%, and then changed to a target of 1.5% per year. Most aviation organizations have similar moving targets.

Then there are the airlines. Virgin Atlantic was the most aggressive, setting a target in 2007 of a 30% reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) per revenue tonne kilometer by 2020. It wrote in 2010 that “it’s a big target and we're sticking with it." It didn't.

By 2021, the carrier announced new targets stretching out until 2040. The report notes the 2021 press release "does not mention the 30% target set for 2021 (previously 2020), nor the interim 2030 target they had set in the previous year, or their seemingly abandoned goal of sustainable biofuel being 10% of their fuel mix by 2020."

Unlike Virgin Atlantic, EasyJet set unambitious targets and actually came close to hitting them, given its relentless drives to lower costs—fuel being one of the biggest. As the report notes, "Efficiency targets are aligned with cost-reduction, as fuel consumption accounts for a high share of airline operational costs, but other business goals invariably take precedence over target progress in practice."

The targets were also based on increased efficiency rather than quantity of emissions, so any reductions in emissions that came from better planes got eaten up by the increasing demand.

In the end, just about every aviation organization or airline that made promises and commitments missed them and buried them. The authors spent a lot of time using the Wayback Machine to look for deleted website pages.

IATA Biofuel

Missing Targets Report

Another set of promises relates to the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), where fossil fuels are replaced with biofuels made from crops or waste fats. In 2007, IATA claimed SAF would be 10% of fuel by 2017. Then in 2011, it reduced that to 6% by 2020. In 2014, it was down to 3% and then IATA went dark about the subject. In 2021, the actual amount of SAF produced totaled 0.02% of the industry's pre-pandemic consumption. Their targets move faster than their airplanes.

The authors conclude by asking:

What is the explanation for this pattern of setting impressive-sounding targets and then quietly abandoning or revising them? Our hypothesis is that targets present an impression of action, of direction, of the existence of a plan to address aviation’s impacts. These targets, therefore, serve to reassure policymakers that the industry has the problem under control and that other—more politically difficult—measures, such as demand management, are not needed.

They note also that "this pattern of, at times almost compulsive, target setting raises some critically important questions around credibility," raising again the question of predatory delay and whether it was all a scheme to avoid taking any action. Have they been lying to us since 2000 or did they honestly think they could achieve these targets?

"What I think is that for the aviation industry (and the politicians that support it) continued growth is unquestionable," Alexander tells Treehugger. "When society's environmental goals conflict with that future growth, it's basically the job of the industry to come up with a story to try and align their growth goal with society's goals. I think it's not that target setters were necessarily insincere rather than naive, but the choice of target metrics is restricted by the need to not limit growth, and it's not obvious that the targets had an impact on business decisions.

This is the fundamental problem. Even as planes get more efficient, the growth of the industry and emissions outpace the savings in emissions. Alexander notes that "it was always clear that aviation emissions were going to keep rising, even with ambitious efficiency targets."

And, as Treehugger's Sami Grover wrote recently:

"Of course, anyone who has been paying attention to the climate crisis knows that 'minimizing emissions growth' is a far cry from the kinds of aggressive cuts that we really need to be pursuing right now. So just as [ICCT aviation expert Dan] Rutherford told us in an interview last year, technological innovation isn’t going to replace the need—and shouldn’t be seen as an alternative to—ambitious efforts at demand reduction and replacing air travel with alternatives where possible."
AirbusZEROe Blended Wing Body Concept
Airbus ZEROe is a concept aircraft that promises to be the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035.


This is where the SAF and alternative fuels come into the picture because efficiency targets don't get you to zero by 2050. The dream now is that hydrogen, ammonia, batteries, and new technology will save us. Because then, if they miss the targets, they have someone else to blame.

Alexander tells Treehugger:

"When IATA responded to our questions, they said, 'It’s important to stress that it is not IATA, nor even the airline sector, that can drive production of SAF. It has to be done by the big oil majors, or by new innovative companies coming to the market.' They can set a bold/unlikely target and use that to justify airport expansion and low taxes, and if anyone picks them up on not meeting it, well, they were just being ambitious but it's really up to governments to fund new technologies, etc..."

Back at the Possible website, the conclusion they draw from this report is that there are no technological solutions that can scale up fast enough. And the politically difficult demand management measures are needed. The website states:

"We are calling for a new way to manage aviation emissions. We need a progressive tax on flying in order to fairly reduce demand for flights, rather than relying on the industry to cut its emissions on a trajectory of perpetual growth in passenger numbers. A frequent flyer levy is a popular and fair alternative to manage demand by placing a higher tax on individuals who fly more often, such as the 15% of people who take 70% of all flights. A frequent flyer levy would be one of the most equitable and easily implementable methods to reduce aviation demand and emissions."

Would it do the job? At the time of writing, airlines have added a fuel surcharge of about $350 for a round trip transatlantic flight, and about $1,100 for business class. It doesn't seem to be affecting demand. But aviation remains one of the most difficult problems to solve. Perhaps it is worth a try.

View Article Sources
  1. Beevor, J. and Alexander, K. "Missed Targets: A brief history of aviation climate targets." Possible: Inspiring Climate Change, May 2022.

  2. "For 20 years the aviation industry has missed all but one of their sustainability targets." Possible, 10 May 2022.