COP26: A changing climate for aviation?

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To say the past two years has been the most challenging period aviation has faced with the biggest public health crisis yet to hit international travel feels somewhat like an understatement. Yet, underpinning this period (and raising even more questions as the industry comes out of this crisis) is undoubtedly the biggest challenge of all: how can aviation decarbonise and reduce its environmental impact?

It is these types of questions that will be asked across all industries, and will be on the minds of delegates from the nearly 200 countries that will come together in November to discuss sustainability and how states can meet and further net zero commitments. I am, of course, talking about COP26.

As aviation geeks will know, it is at ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization, not COP26 where key decisions and policymaking regarding the reduction of aircraft emissions take place. That said, the importance of COP26, expected to be the first time in five years when states come together to agree enhanced emissions targets, cannot be understated. Nor can the potential impact of representatives from industries, including aviation coming together to discuss policy priorities.

Indeed, the spotlight will be on aviation even before the conference kicks off, with delegates flying into the host country – the UK – from all over the globe. There’s little doubt that the media and the industry’s biggest critics will be scrutinising these choices of transportation. In fact, we’ve already seen nonprofits organising travel for delegates via ‘greener climate trains’ from Amsterdam to Glasgow in protest (not a quick journey by any means).

Of course, there is also a major opportunity for aviation to demonstrate the progress made. British Airways has already pledged that it will source sustainable aviation fuel during the conference for all flights between London, Glasgow and Edinburgh, with a carbon reduction of 80% compared to traditional jet fuel. Meanwhile, Cambridge University, in partnership with HRH The Prince of Wales, has launched an Aviation Impact Accelerator (AIA) which will simulate growth scenarios and the resource requirements for aircraft to decarbonise.

These are all fantastic steps in demonstrating what is possible, but it’s the long-term policy decisions that will be the true test of COP’s success. To quote the President of COP26, Alok Sharma, “We need to move beyond people restating their long-held positions. I think we have to find a landing zone.” This is why I was heartened to see a recent press release from London Heathrow urging the UK Government to capitalise on the success of COP and remove one of the most significant barriers to short-medium term decarbonisation for industry with the lack of supply of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). 

The press release called on the government to use this moment to implement a competitive pricing mechanism to increase supply, potentially a Contracts for Difference Model, which would increase investor confidence and create the basis for a long-term fuels industry (something I covered in more detail in my last article). This could give a significant boost to both a UK industry in sustainable fuels and the carriers who can rely on a stable supply for their emissions reduction targets – a long-term outcome that would reach far beyond this two-week conference.

The core focus for COP26 is, of course, not just action from industry stakeholders, but that of states. Here some key questions remain concerning some of the biggest polluters, including China and India who have missed the deadline for submitting updated climate plans ahead of COP. Indeed, China said recently that it was unlikely to attend the conference.

No doubt it will be an eventful two weeks in November, with the world waiting to see if the UK host can achieve the necessary global carbon reduction targets. As Sharma said, we have to find a landing zone. Whether this will happen in Glasgow however, is yet to be seen…

To find out more about the UK’s hosting of COP26 and how you can even get involved and attend events in the green zone, please visit 

‘Transport Day’ will take place on November 10, 2021.

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