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Aviation Climate Targets, A Mea Culpa, & Industry PR Types Shooting Themselves In The Foot

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Recently, I published an assessment praising the International Maritime Organization (IMO) for its new climate action targets, and suggesting that the International Civil Aviation Association (ICAO) was lagging badly. Both are UN organizations, but while the IMO featured active language, clear upfront support for UN sustainable development goals (SDG), and solid, if not 1.5° Celsius of heating aligned targets, the ICAO featured passive language, was silent in its upfront material about SDGs, and still featured its 2019 climate action plan prominently.

I characterized the ICAO’s plan as:

“the industry, which is responsible for about 5% of global warming emissions, saying that it’s not going to stop doing that or reduce it in any way, but instead they’ll grow rapidly, but all the new flights will be covered. Well, that’s actually too strong a way to put it. What they are actually saying is that they’ll grow as rapidly as possible, and have an aspiration to maintain the same massive emissions.”

And, to be clear, I was looking at the ICAO’s currently maintained page on Climate Change on its website, Skip Navigation LinksICAO / Environmental Protection / Climate Change.

But it turns out that the ICAO really sucks at basic public relations professionalism. A communications officer of theirs left me a snarky comment that I’d missed the big news on climate from 2022. At its 41st Assembly in late September, the Association agreed to a new climate “plan,” Resolution A41-21: Consolidated statement of continuing ICAO policies and practices related to environmental protection — Climate change.

What’s the new plan, and how is it different from the old plan? Well, the old plan ignored contrails warming forcing. Does this plan include contrails warming forcing? No, no, it doesn’t.

As a result, the old plan understated aviation’s global emissions. Does this plan acknowledge that aviation emissions are at least twice their claims? No, no, it doesn’t.

The old plan featured “2% annual fuel efficiency improvement through 2050.” Does the new plan call for better improvements? No, no, it does not.

The old plan featured “carbon neutral growth from 2020 onwards.” Did the ICAO amend this only aspirational goal significantly? Well, apparently, this is what the communications officer was so snippy about.

“ICAO and its Member States are encouraged to work together to strive to achieve a collective long-term global aspirational goal for international aviation (LTAG) of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.”

That’s the big change. Encouragement. To strive. Aspirational goal.

Oh, and that bit about contrail forcing denial? Well, they say in a couple of places that there’s all this uncertainty about other aspects of aviation that require research, and encourage governments to pay for the research, all while never using the word contrail anywhere in the agreed-upon text.

Pretty weak sauce, especially compared to the IMO’s much more specific targets and agreements. And, to be clear, this milquetoast wording comes after four preceding pages of paragraphs starting with words like whereas, acknowledging, and recognizing, which in large part involve patting the industry on the back for the amazing work they’d done on the climate front in the past, which is, to say, growing the industry massively while making airplanes more efficient, the latter being a profit-oriented exercise, of course.

So, the mea culpa is that I missed this non-event when looking at the ICAO’s own pages about itself on climate change, and its front page.

By the way, the ICAO isn’t the only global aviation industry organization, just the UN aviation industry organization. There’s also the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which isn’t a UN agency. A key difference is that the ICAO’s membership is countries, while IATA’s are airlines. Another is that the ICAO works to set standards and procedures for civil aviation, including — in theory — climate action, while IATA focuses on issues surrounding the security, efficiency, and financial conditions of air travel, and lately, matters of sustainability and equality.

So what does IATA’s page on climate change say? Well, let’s start with its title: “Our Commitment to Fly Net Zero by 2050.” Net zero is a bit a loaded term, suggesting lots of offsets, but commitment is a lot better than aspiration.

“At the 77th IATA Annual General Meeting in Boston, USA, on 4 October 2021, a resolution was passed by IATA member airlines committing them to achieving net-zero carbon emissions from their operations by 2050. This pledge brings air transport in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2°C. “

Perfect? No. But clear and asserting commitment, making it clear that it was working to align with one of the key heating goals, and not surrounded by backpatting bafflegab.

Back to the incompetence of communications types. There are a few basic rules to keep in mind.

The first is that if you want people to think you are doing something different than you did before, then update your website pages devoted to that subject. This is basic, basic stuff. Instead, the ICAO has its 2019 non-plan front and center, and the really weak 2022 agreement buried. Communications officers should be working on that. Maybe they should hire the IATA’s or IMO’s communications staff instead.

Second, when responding in public comments, honey, not vinegar, is the best starting point. I saw this with the Methanol Institute’s long-term (really long-term) president’s comments to me on LinkedIn when I pointed out that the Methanex’ methanol-powered Atlantic crossing was greenwashing of the most egregious degree. And the condescending, antagonistic tone of the communications officer was definitely vinegar, although he was tone deaf about how he was communicating, of course.

It’s almost like they don’t hire competent people or give them basic media training. Of course, in the ICAO’s case, they are part of an industry which has been treated like royalty for so long that they have engrained delusions of innate superiority, and are struggling with all of a sudden being the climate bad guys. As I mentioned in the article which triggered this, the defensiveness of the industry is dripping off of them like flop sweat. Resolution A41-21’s industry back-patting on trivial action and delight in its centrality to the world’s affairs is par for the course.

Third, when providing feedback, make sure it’s accurate and defensible. In the case of the Methanol Institute’s president, he made the claim that I was wrong about methanol costing more than maritime diesel per unit of energy. I’d looked, so I was comfortable, but that led me to do more digging.

Table of energy cost comparisons for bulk methanol and diesel in China, Europe and USA by author
Energy cost comparisons for bulk methanol and diesel in China, Europe, and USA. Table by author.

Yeah, I was right, the methanol lobbyist was wrong, and he basically shot himself and the industry in the foot by making it an issue.

In the case of ICAO’s communication officer, same thing. Now there’s an entire additional article about how weak and inadequate the ICAO’s efforts are, along with its communications incompetence. And he’s the communications officer, so, you know….

Fourth, when you are clearly sticking your foot in your mouth in public comments, don’t keep shoving it in deeper. The Methanol Institute president got that one right and stayed silent after the initial interaction, although a European Methanol Institute representative jumped into comments later, arguing also inaccurate points about one of my methanol-related publications. ICAO’s communications officer? Not so much.

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And to be clear, I did make some calculation errors that I acknowledged and addressed in one of my methanol pieces, overstating its greenhouse gas emissions slightly. Methanol’s tons of CO2e per ton of fuel are only 2.9 times worse than diesel, not just over 3 times worse, as I’d originally calculated. There is no claim of perfection here, and I’m happy to be corrected when actually wrong. When challenged, I dig into the numbers and claims, and publish corrections with mea culpas where they are merited.

But in the case of the ICAO, its “About” page continues to be weaselly passive voice and contain nothing about UN sustainable aviation goals, its climate action page has nothing about Resolution A41-21 and still flaunts the really damning graphic about continuing to emit at current levels forever, it continues to deny that contrails are a problem, and the 2022 resolution is something that would have been good in 1990 but in the 2020s is a nothingburger. And its communications professionals compound this with remarkably bad online skills. It’s almost like they want bad press.


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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast (https://shorturl.at/tuEF5) , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team. Most recently he contributed to "Proven Climate Solutions: Leading Voices on How to Accelerate Change" (https://www.amazon.com/Proven-Climate-Solutions-Leading-Accelerate-ebook/dp/B0D2T8Z3MW) along with Mark Z. Jacobson, Mary D. Nichols, Dr. Robert W. Howarth and Dr. Audrey Lee among others.

Michael Barnard has 759 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard