Aviation excuses just won't fly

The aviation industry’s climate impact will be the same in 2050 as now under its ‘Fly Net Zero’ greenwash climate plan.

Fly Net Zero is a focal point for the industry forum. But in the new report - Pie in the Sky - the New Weather Institute investigates what the plan actually entails and its main failures are glaring.

The aviation industry - representing one of the most polluting forms of travel used only by a small minority of the world’s population - has for decades fought hard to avoid and delay taking necessary climate action.

It might have felt it had done enough to hold critics at bay and present a confident face at the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA’s) international Aviation Energy Forum in brandishing its ‘Fly Net Zero’ plan.

But a new analysis carried out by the New Weather Institute shows that the industry’s proposed scheme for climate action will fail catastrophically to align the industry with agreed international climate targets.


It also stands to put global biodiversity at risk and compete with food production without actually reducing aviation’s climate impact. 

Recently, António Guterres , Secretary General of the United Nations, reminded people that delaying climate action was ‘criminal’ and meant ‘death’. Even now, extreme, lethal and unseasonal heat waves are affecting around 1.5 billion people in Asia.

Globally only a very small number of people who fly regularly produce the vast majority of aviation emissions.

It is estimated that only two percent to four of the global population flew internationally in 2018, and that one percent of the world’s population emits 50 percent of the pollution from commercial aviation.

The inequity is true between nations too, where citizens of wealthy nations fly more than those in developing countries.


A mere 10 countries account for about 60 percent of total aviation pollution. But it is also true within nations. Wealthy people in all countries fly more than their fellow citizens with average or low income.

Aviation’s present share of global greenhouse gas emissions is estimated to be four to five percent, including non-CO2 effects.

If aviation grows to the extent expected by IATA, and if all their plans were successfully implemented, that share would increase threefold, giving humanity more opportunities to fly, but a ‘freedom’ for one sector that simultaneously forces others to reduce their emissions disproportionately more, or simply mean missing the 1.5ºC target.

Contrary to what IATA seems to believe, there is, in fact, no “freedom to fly” according to the UN international Human Rights law.

However, since 8 October 2021 there is a human right to a healthy environment, and IATA’s plans are in stark opposition to it.


Fly Net Zero is a focal point for the industry forum. But in the new report - Pie in the Sky - the New Weather Institute investigates what the plan actually entails and its main failures are glaring.

Fly Net Zero is a focal point for the industry forum. But in the new report - Pie in the Sky - the New Weather Institute investigates what the plan actually entails and its main failures are glaring.

They include that IATA plans for at least a doubling of global air passengers by 2050, hugely increasing the size of  the industry, just as its climate impacts need abating.

The plan focuses on attempts to “decarbonise” aviation, but it completely disregards the existence of aviation’s non-carbon dioxide (CO2) climate impacts. Scientists agree that these other such effects are roughly equivalent to the CO2 impacts, amounting to a doubling of the problem from the carbon emissions. Ignoring these means that IATA is turning a blind eye to half the problem.

More troubling still, under the plan, over the next immediate decade - a period when it is crucial to reduce climate impact - emissions and non-CO2 effects will actually increase, only being “off-set” by mechanisms that will have only marginal effects at best, and at worst under lax regulatory systems for biofuels, could make matters worse.

From 2035 to 2050 the plan envisages a switch to biofuels, something that for aviation fuel alone will require three times as much biofuels as the present, global production of all liquid biofuels.


Such a development would require vast amounts of land, endanger global biodiversity, put pressure on food production for human consumption and increase risks of land grabbing for crops for biofuel production.

Even if the plan succeeds on its own terms, it will leave the aviation industry causing as much climate damage in 2050 as it is today, while also taking up a huge and much larger share of the shrinking global carbon budget for this century.

To remedy the situation, the New Weather Institute is calling on IATA and the International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO, to draft, pass and implement a resolution on industry-wide climate action that is truly in line with the Paris agreement, committing aviation to zero CO2emissions by 2050, including non-CO2-effects.

It also wants to see an inquiry under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the scale of the aviation industry which – allowing for other sectors and aviation’s non-CO2 effects – would be compatible with reaching the 1.5°C goal, with realistic short term action in the first decade to create a credible pathway beyond 2030.


While this happens, governments should take immediate action to limit the growth of aviation through domestic, joint or unilateral measures, including an embargo on the further expansion of the industry.

IATA’s plans are also a form of greenwash, attempting to present the industry as taking responsible action on the climate emergency when they are doing the opposite.

In spite of its gaping holes and lack of sound science IATA is currently marketing its “Fly Net Zero” scheme on its website with the claim that the pledge focused on being ‘net zero’ by 2050 sets global aviation “in line with the objectives of the Paris agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C.”

The New Weather Institute considers these claims to be unproven. This, we feel, places IATA in breach of the Advertising and Marketing Communications Code of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and, as a result, the Institute has filed a complaint with the (Swedish) regulator (Reklamombudsmannen) which has a wide enough remit to be able to hold IATA to account.

 These Authors

Andrew Simms is co-director of the New Weather Institute, coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance, author of several books on new and green economics and co-author of the original Green New Deal. He is on twitter at @AndrewSimms_uk.

Gunnar Lind is a co-founder of New Weather Sweden, and special advisor to the former Minister for the Environment and Climate in Sweden, Isabella Lövin, where he worked until February 2021. 

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