A United Nations body agreed on Friday 7 October to a long-term aspirational goal for net-zero aviation emissions by 2050, despite challenges from China and other countries aligned largely with airlines amid pressure to curb air pollution.
The decision, described as a "milestone" by industry and a "compromise" by European countries that wanted a more ambitious target, was applauded by members at the 193-nation International Civil Aviation Organization's (ICAO) assembly, held every three years.
China, backed by Russia and Eritrea, questioned the feasibility of the goal, and argued developed countries must provide financial support to developing nations with faster-growing aviation markets.
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Some delegates in Montreal shrugged off Beijing's refusal to back the deal wholeheartedly but analysts have said China’s climate stance is important as it is poised to overtake the U.S. as the largest aviation market this decade.
ICAO cannot impose rules but countries that approve decisions usually abide by them.
An ICAO preparatory meeting in July had laid the goal's groundwork after years of talks.
Airlines last year adopted a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 in a de facto dress-rehearsal that drew reservations from Chinese carriers, reflecting Beijing's more cautious stance on multilateral action.
Airlines want global action to avoid countries imposing different rules and fees to curb emissions.
"While the agreement is not perfect, it builds upon the notable progress we have made in recent decades and will prevent a patchwork of global measures," said US airline trade group Airlines for America.
The Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) called it a "milestone day for the aviation sector."
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said "it’s time for aviation to move towards net zero carbon emissions by 2050. We’re working with our international partners to make this a reality, and today’s historic agreement is an important step forward."
The assembly also approved changes to the baseline of ICAO's flagship aviation emissions agreement CORSIA.
Officials hope the goal will go beyond industry announcements to boost supplies of new sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and encourage private investment.
"Policymakers must send the demand signal," said SAF-producer Alder Fuels Chief Sustainability Officer Nancy Young.
"Having a single, global goal for an international industry like aviation will provide much-needed certainty for the industry, investors and all states involved," said Adina Valean, European commissioner for transport.
Dan Rutherford, aviation director of the U.S.-based International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), said richer countries will need to curb their emissions since developing countries are still growing their markets.
Still, aviation is expected to remain in the cross-hairs of climate groups who see the exercise as a smokescreen.
Jo Dardenne, aviation director at Brussels-based Transport & Environment, said the goal is better than no goal, but decried the lack of a plan to achieve the target.
"Goal Without Teeth"
"It's a goal without teeth."