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Nations Agree to Curb Emissions From Flying by 2050

After almost a decade of talks, the nations of the world committed Friday to drastically lower emissions of planet-warming gases from the world’s airplanes by 2050, a milestone in efforts to ease the climate effects of a fast-growing sector.

The target to reach “net zero” emissions — a point in which air travel is no longer pumping any additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — would require the aviation industry to significantly step up its climate efforts. Previously, companies had relied on offsetting aviation’s emissions growth through tree-planting programs or through yet-to-be-proven technology to pull carbon dioxide out of the air.

But to reach net zero, companies and governments would need to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in increasingly efficient planes and cleaner fuels to sharply reduce emissions from air travel itself. And even those investments are unlikely to be enough, compelling countries and companies to adopt policies to curb flying itself, by scrapping fuel subsidies or halting airport expansion plans, for example, or ending frequent flier programs.

That puts the onus on the world’s richest countries, which account for the bulk of global air travel. The richest 20 percent of people worldwide take 80 percent of the flights, according to estimates by the International Council on Clean Transportation, a nonprofit think tank. The top 2 percent of frequent fliers take about 40 percent of the flights.

“To build room for poorer countries to grow their aviation sectors, richer countries will need to peak emissions even faster,” said Dan Rutherford, director of the think tank’s aviation and marine programs.

Emissions from global commercial aviation made up about 3 percent of global emissions in 2019, and had surged more than 30 percent over the previous decade before the coronavirus pandemic hit and traffic slumped. But air travel has come back with a vengeance, making action to address rising emissions imperative.

The aviation industry has been slow to address its emissions, which aren’t covered by the Paris accord, the 2015 agreement among the nations of the world to fight climate change. Instead, a United Nations-like body called the International Civil Aviation Organization has overseen the climate talks. Those talks quickly became a microcosm of the politics involved in global climate negotiations, with less wealthy nations arguing that they should not face the same restrictions as richer nations.

India and China, where air travel is surging, argued at the talks in Montreal this week that their air carriers would require until 2060 or 2070 to achieve net zero emissions.

The 2050 target comes with no guarantees of success. Similar to the Paris agreement, ICAO’s targets don’t come with any authority to set policy. In addition, the agreement doesn’t assign targets to specific countries or airline companies, leaving the task of setting rules to member states.

Aviation’s contribution to climate change has been thrust into the spotlight in recent years by climate activists like Greta Thunberg, the Swedish environmentalist who inspired a worldwide no-fly campaign.

The European Union has also taken the lead in policy, proposing a plethora changes like ending tax exemptions for jet fuel and taxing carbon emissions instead. French politicians have also proposed banning short-haul flights. In the United States, the ambitious Inflation Reduction Act passed this year includes subsidies for sustainable aviation fuel.

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