International Air Transport Association (IATA)

Nominated for leading lobbying efforts by the major airlines against climate legislation and for issuing misleading and “meaningless” pledges on reducing emissions.


The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is the main lobbying organisation representing the international airline industry. Its members include the world’s leading long-haul airlines, like American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, KLM, Lufthansa, Qantas and United Airlines.

For over a decade IATA has led the industry’s efforts against regulatory action on climate change. The PR strategy has been two pronged, including huge amounts of greenwashing, and blatant manipulation of its ecological impact. Its messaging has been described by the industry watchdog, Transport and Environment (T&E), as being “almost always 100% away from the truth”.

IATA has lobbied politicians arguing that the airline industry is part of the solution to climate change, not the problem. Its lobbying campaign intensified in December 2005 when the IATA board endorsed an industry-wide strategy to tackle climate change. This advocated green technology and infrastructure changes as solutions, rather than taxes on fuel or emissions. The concept of curtailing the industry’s rapid growth is never discussed.

Since then, IATA has repeatedly argued that “technology is the key” to solving climate change. To back this up, IATA claims that “aircraft entering today’s fleets are 70% more fuel efficient than they were 40 years ago.” However, an analysis undertaken by the Dutch National Aerospace Laboratory for T&E found that “today’s commercial passenger planes are no more fuel-efficient than their equivalents of fifty years ago and aviation industry claims of a 70% improvement in fuel-efficiency are false.”

IATA has also repeatedly played down aviation’s contribution to climate change, arguing that “Air transport contributes a small part of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions: 2%.” In fact, T&E points out that the 2% figure “was true in 1992”, but that this was “only for CO2 emissions”.

Whereas IATA likes to talk solely about CO2, it omits to mention the global warming impact of nitrogen oxide emissions, contrails and cirrus clouds – all caused by aviation – the impacts of which are two to five times greater than that of CO2 alone. In a myth-busting report, T&E argues: “The contribution of aviation to climate change is currently 4-9% at the global level and 5-12% in the EU.”

One IATA lobbying document even claims that, despite all the evidence of aircraft being the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions: “Air transport contributes to the stabilisation of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere by continuously increasing fuel and carbon efficiency.”

Lobbying to undermine the EU schemes to tackle climate change

IATA has led the industry’s lobbying and advertising campaigns against aviation being included in the EU Emission Trading Scheme (ETS), one of Europe’s key mechanisms for reducing emissions. It has been accused by the NGO, Corporate Europe Observatory, of campaigning “to fight or hijack the scheme in their interests.” For example, in June 2008, just as political negotiations on the scheme reached a critical stage, IATA spent €80,000 on a full-page advertisement in the International Herald Tribune, urging politicians to “stop plans to punish airlines and travellers with an ETS that will only invite international legal battles.”

IATA actually encouraged legal challenges to the EU ETS. In August 2008, its director general Giovanni Bisignani urged Australia to challenge Europe’s “unilateral and illegal” move to bring aviation into ETS. “What right does Europe have, for example, to tax an Australian plane flying from Asia to Europe for emissions over Afghanistan?” he said.

Pre-empting Copenhagen

IATA has been working on a proposal to pre-empt moves to include aviation in the UN Copenhagen climate change conference in December 2009. The industry is terrified of being singled out during the talks, as scientists and politicians become increasingly concerned about rising aircraft emissions, which are projected to increase fourfold, if they are not properly controlled.

IATA made a pre-emptive strike in September 2009 at the UN Summit on Climate Change in New York, when the CEO of British Airways, Willie Walsh, announced that the aviation industry would cut carbon emissions to 50% of 2005 levels by 2050. The announcement was intended to undermine regulation of the industry at December’s climate talks.

Willie Walsh’s announcement was met with scepticism from environmental groups and the press. Greenpeace called it “little more than an elaborate conjuring trick, designed to make the world believe that the airline industry is serious about climate change, while it carries on with business as usual.” The Times reported that it was intended to “fend off calls for new taxes on flying and criticism that they are failing to act quickly enough in the fight against climate change.”

Moreover, when industry analysts went through the figures they discovered they were flawed: the UK-based Aviation Environment Foundation (AEF) found that Walsh had talked about “net” cuts, which are not the same as real cuts. This allows the industry to use emissions trading and carbon offsets to create the impression of reductions in CO2, both of which are increasingly seen as flawed solutions. Apparently IATA had considered a 50% absolute reduction, but decided it was not achievable.

To reduce net CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050 (compared with 2005 levels) is actually far less ambitious than the targets set for other sectors. The G8 countries have agreed to 80% cuts. This means that other sectors will have to reduce emissions by even more than 80% to make up the difference.

The move was even criticised from within the industry itself: the low-cost carrier, EasyJet, which is not an IATA member, had backed a 50% reduction, but said: “Rather than using offsets and buying emission permits from other sectors, we should be reducing absolute emissions.”

Finally, as T&E points out, the announcement was effectively “meaningless”, as the 2050 target was only ever “aspirational”.

IATA was asked to comment on its nomination for the Angry Mermaid Award but did not respond.