A strong whiff of greenwashing was in the air earlier this month, when the International Air Transport Association confidently presented its sustainability plan to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

I’m not sure IATA fully realizes that its plan substitutes hope for realism, committing to targets that will be unattainable without an almost unimaginable leap in fuel and aircraft technology. On balance, I hope not, because I would prefer to believe that they’re misleading themselves rather than setting out to mislead the rest of us.

Unfortunately, the results are the same either way—for the airlines’ carbon footprint, and for the perception of the industry’s climate challenge, both within the meetings and travel sector and by the traveling public.

Although air travel accounts for only about 2 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, it is one of the toughest areas in which to effect change in reducing our global carbon footprints. Some of the best scientific minds tell us that the world’s last chance to avoid runaway climate change is to slash carbon emissions 80 percent by 2030 or, in a slightly more optimistic scenario, by 2050. If we fail, our grandchildren face a terrible future, and our own prospects won’t be so great, either, according to the UK’s Met Office Hadley Centre. Rather than confronting that issue head-on, IATA largely glosses it over.

IATA introduced the plan in June, with considerable fanfare. “Today, we have taken a major step forward by committing to a global cap on our emissions in 2020,” IATA CEO Giovanni Bisignani told industry leaders at the World Air Transport Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “After this date, aviation’s emissions will not grow even as demand increases. Airlines are the first global industry to make such a bold commitment.”

But when I approached IATA for details, a different picture emerged. It turned out that, just as Bisignani said, IATA was introducing an emissions cap beginning in 2020, not committing to a carbon-neutral industry by 2020. The difference matters if it means that emissions will continue to rise over the next 11 years, leaving the industry to define its global cap at a higher annual output.

Unfortunately for the climate, that’s exactly what’s happening. According to IATA Assistant Director Quentin Browell, airlines are expected to produce 623 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2009. After that, IATA anticipates a 1.5 percent annual improvement in fuel efficiency, but projects a 5 percent annual increase in air travel, after accounting for the economic downturn. A compound annual increase of 3.5 percent in carbon emissions, extending over the next 11 years, will mean that aviation defines “carbon neutrality” as an output of almost 910 million tons per year, more than a 50 percent increase over 2009 emissions.

From that total carbon output as a starting point, IATA expects its members to cut emissions 50 percent by 2050. If they succeed, they’ll reach a target of 455 million tons—a 27 percent reduction from 2009—in the year when the science says they should be shooting for an 80 percent reduction.

But wait, as the ad guy said—there’s more. The IATA target makes no commitments for individual airlines, but presumes investments of $1.5 trillion in new aircraft by 2020, more than $100 billion in carbon offsets by 2025, and another $100 billion in biofuels by 2020—assuming they’re even available.

Hey, no problem: I have every confidence that airlines are up to the challenge and have deep enough pockets to make their vision a reality. Don’t you?

Less than two months ahead of the landmark climate change conference in Copenhagen, IATA’s visit to the U.N. could have been a world-changing moment for the airline industry to deliver a meaningful carbon reduction plan, backed by practical, achievable targets. The rhetoric, at least, was up to the occasion.

According to the Environment News Service, “Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon commended the aviation industry's commitment to contribute to the global fight against climate change and encouraged that these commitments be followed by concrete actions.” If meeting professionals hope to continue flying participants around the world to attend face-to-face meetings, we’d better be watching for the same kind of results.

Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president and CEO of The Conference Publishers Inc., one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog. Send comments, facts, arguments, or column ideas to mitchell@theconferencepublishers.com.