UN boss calls for stronger aviation and shipping climate goals in line with 1.5C

Antonio Guterres said targets set at UN bodies for international transport were compatible with more than 3C of global warming and urged more action

Planes parked at Cardiff airport (Photo: Clint Budd/WikiCommons)


UN chief Antonio Guterres has called for international shipping and aviation targets to be radically strengthened, in line with the Paris Agreement stretch target to limit global warming to 1.5C.

Climate goals set at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which sit under the UN umbrella, are consistent with more than 3C of global warming, he said.

Antonio Guterres told the Global Sustainable Transport Conference in Beijing on Thursday: “Transport, which accounts for more than one quarter of global greenhouse gases, is key to getting on track. We must decarbonize all means of transport, in order to get to net-zero emissions by 2050.”

He added: “Let’s be honest. While member states have made some initial steps through the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Maritime Organization to address emissions from shipping and aviation, current commitments are not aligned with the 1.5-degree goal of the Paris Agreement. In fact, they are more consistent with warming way above 3 degrees”.

He then made three specific calls: for the phase-out of production of polluting road vehicles by 2035-2040, for shipping to be zero emissions by 2050 and for aviation’s emissions per passenger to reduce 65% by 2050.

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On shipping, Guterres said: “Zero emission ships must be the default choice, and commercially available for all by 2030, in order to achieve zero emissions in the shipping sector by 2050.”

This echoes a proposal by three Pacific Island nations, which will be debated at an IMO meeting in November.

One of those pushing the proposal is the Marshall Islands ambassador Albon Ishoda. He told Climate Home News that he was “absolutely glad that [Guterres] is making that call – it certainly aligns with our view for urgency”.

Peter Nuttall, from the Micronesian Center for Sustainable Transport, said that the zero carbon by 2050 proposal “has gone from dark horse to obvious choice”.

The current IMO target, set after fierce debate in 2018, is to reduce emissions at least 50% by 2050 on 2008 levels while pursuing complete decarbonisation.

Cargo ships have a life expectancy of 25-30 years, making the long term goal directly relevant to ships built this decade.

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While campaigners celebrated the shipping element of his speech, others told Climate Home News that his aviation and road vehicle proposals were not ambitious enough.

Andrew Murphy, aviation director of the Transport and Environment NGO, said: “Per passenger efficiency has not been useful in aviation. It’s allowed the sector to keep on growing its emissions.”

The annual number of kilometres flown by passengers nearly doubled between 2010 and 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic caused a drastic drop off. Growth is expected to rebound and continue in the coming decades.

ICAO agreed an “aspirational goal” in 2016 to make the growth in air travel carbon neutral from 2020, establishing a carbon offsetting scheme to buy emissions reductions in other sectors. A number of loopholes and rule changes in response to Covid mean the first airlines are not expected to start paying for pollution permits before 2023.

Guterres said that “companies must start using sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) now” to reduce their emissions rather than offsetting them. Murphy questioned whether many SAFs are really sustainable, as they involve burning crops that compete for land with food and forests.

SAFs can also be produced with renewable electricity and this may be more economically viable as the world develops more renewables, Murphy said.

Leo Murray, director of innovation at the Possible NGO, said that this renewable energy would be better used by other sectors as producing jet fuel is “incredibly inefficient”. He said that the priority should be reducing flying rather than shifting planes to SAFs.

The aviation industry association IATA recently agreed a plan to reach net zero by 2050, saying 65% of the emissions reductions could come from using SAFs.

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On road vehicles, Gutteres’s call was to “phase out the production of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035 for leading manufacturing countries, and by 2040 for developing countries”.

Julia Poliscanova, Transport and Environment’s vehicles expert, said: “Broadly this call is very welcome. But from the global climate perspective and taking the lifetime of cars into account 2040 is too late”.

The biggest producers of vehicles in 2021 were China, the US, Japan, South Korea, Germany and Mexico.

The focus of most policy-makers and campaigners has been on setting phase-out dates for the sale and registration, rather than the production, of new internal combustion engine vehicles.

While no countries plan to ban production of internal combustion engine vehicles, some richer nations have planned to stop the sale or registration of internal combustion engine cars by dates in between 2030 and 2050.

As of June 2021, these governments had set phase-out dates for the sale or registration of polluting cars. (Photo: ICCT)

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