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British Airways readies for takeoff on aviation emissions cuts

One jumbo-jet sized hole in the Paris Climate Agreement, aviation industry emissions, is the subject of a new corporate target from an industry sustainability laggard.

The boss of British Airways owner International Airlines Group (IAG) has announced plans to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per passenger on its flights.

Speaking to the Telegraph this week, Willie Walsh laid out his target for IAG to reduce its per-passenger emissions 8 percent by 2020 compared to 2015.

He also called for governments and other carriers to support a proposal from the U.N.'s aviation agency for a global deal to cut emissions from the aviation industry.

"A fair, uniform system will give aviation a clear and direct financial incentive to develop cleaner aircraft, switch to low-carbon fuels and introduce more efficient air traffic systems that eradicate unnecessary flying," he said. "No other industry has anything like as comprehensive a scheme for reducing its global CO2 footprint."

A global deal for aviation carbon emissions is the only way the industry can continue to meet demand sustainably, he added.

However, the sector previously has faced criticism from green groups for making slow progress in developing an international carbon pricing mechanism, lobbying for continued airport expansion and opposing regional market-based mechanisms for curbing emissions, such as the EU's inclusion of aviation in its emissions trading scheme (ETS).

A global deal for aviation carbon emissions is the only way the industry can continue to meet demand sustainably.

Even with the new pledge, British Airways still has a significant amount of progress to make to catch up with industry leaders in cutting its per passenger emissions.

A 2014 fuel efficiency ranking (PDF) of the top 20 transatlantic airlines released by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) put British Airways in last place. The report calculated that its fleet used an average of 51 percent more fuel for each kilometer traveled than top-ranked Norwegian Airlines. Spanish carrier Iberia — also owned by IAG — used 30 percent more.

British Airways was also not among the signatories of an open letter, published in November and signed by 28 airline bosses, calling for a market-based solution for tackling aviation emissions.

Last week the U.N.'s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) said its work to produce an official international carbon standard for aircraft is making "further and important headway," with the agency hopeful it will be adopted by its 36-state governing council.

The new standard would apply to any new aircraft designs from 2020, as well as deliveries of current in-production aircraft designs from 2023. A group of international experts on the ICAO's committee also has recommended that the standard be applied to all new aircraft from 2028 — effectively banning the production of the most inefficient models.

However, green groups criticized the proposed standard for not going far enough and allowing less efficient models to continue to be sold for much of the next decade.

"Willie Walsh is right to call for governments to support a global deal on aviation CO2 emissions, but an agreement should not come at any cost," Tim Johnson, director of the Aviation Environment Federation and lead representative of the NGO presence at the ICAO meetings, told BusinessGreen. "Any deal must be environmentally effective and ambitious enough to reduce aviation emissions in line with the Paris Agreement's goal to limit temperature rises to 1.5 Celsius.

"Even if an effective deal is struck at the U.N. meeting in the autumn, academic studies indicate that additional measures, including passenger demand management, may still be needed to help reduce aviation emissions in the future, especially as 40 percent of the sector's global emissions come from domestic aviation that will be excluded from any deal. This issue isn't being discussed by industry or governments at the moment."

The aviation sector produces around 2 percent of global CO2 emissions, emitting 448 megatons in 2010, but the ICAO predicted (PDF) this could increase to as much as 755 megatons in 2020, when the industry hopes to first achieve "carbon neutral growth."

If no action is taken to reduce its footprint the industry could be emitting 1,800 megatons by 2040, according to the ICAO.

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