Not even Nobel prize winners can fix aviation emissions

Every which way but forward. Are biofuels an answer to aviation emissions we can agree on? pearsongraphics/Flickr

Aviation is a growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. In other industries emissions are declining, or at least are better regulated. Airline emissions, however, continue to soar.

How viable are laws that would regulate the carbon footprint of airlines? Will airlines ever have an obligation to use biofuels?

Both of these questions arise because of the what’s known as the “aviation emissions problem”. The answers to those questions are “not viable at all” and “no time soon.”

The emissions problem

Aviation’s contribution to total emissions is between 2% and 8%, according to the IPCC. The International Civil Aviation Organization forecasts significant further emissions growth. Against a 2006 baseline we’re expecting a 63-83% increase by 2020, and a 290-667% increase by 2050. This is without accounting for more use of biofuels.

Research published last month by Manchester Metropolitan University found total aviation emissions in 2006 were 630 megatonnes CO2. By 2050 emissions would be in the order of 1,000 to 3,100 megatonnes, depending on growth and mitigation efforts.

And research published last week in Nature Climate Change shows that just as aviation can affect the climate, climate change could affect aviation. Clear-air turbulence linked to atmospheric jet streams, strengthened by human-induced climate change, could well lead to a bumpy ride on trans-Atlantic flights.

Ground controls to lessen aviation’s carbon footprint

Under the Kyoto Protocol developed countries like Australia “shall pursue limitation or reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases from aviation working through the International Civil Aviation Organization”.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is the UN agency responsible for international aviation. In other words, aviation emission’s are the ICAO’s problem, and not Kyoto’s, excluding them from the world’s primary climate change legal instrument.

Given aviation’s absence from Kyoto, and ICAO’s failure to address the aviation emissions problem, the European Union (EU) has taken action.

Under Directive 2008/101/EC of the EU emissions trading scheme, all flights in the EU must surrender emissions allowances equal to emissions created from the entire flight. This covers any flight landing or taking off from any airport in the EU. Most of the emissions allowances (85%) were allocated to the airlines for free.

The strategy was to take effect from 1 January 2012. However international airlines, led by those in the US and China, strenuously opposed the inclusion of aviation in the EU emissions trading scheme. They challenged its legality in the European Court of Justice – and failed.

Bright hope, or is the sun setting on a chance to act? Kuster & Wildhaber Photography/Flickr

Largely because of that strong opposition the EU announced in November last year that it would freeze the inclusion of international aviation in the trading scheme until late this year.

One day after the EU’s announcement, the US House of Representatives passed legislation, which President Obama signed, prohibiting a US aircraft operator from ever participating in the EU’s trading scheme.

The EU said it would look to ICAO to address the problem. ICAO’s General Assembly is in September-October this year – a few months away. They’ve been working on the aviation emissions problem since 1997 and have yet to find any solution.

Last month, a group of leading economists, including eight Nobel Prize winners, wrote to President Obama urging him to support a price on aviation. They said this:

Pricing carbon in the aviation sector will incentivize appropriate investments and changes in operations that would reduce future greenhouse gas emissions. If climate change is to be slowed appreciably at tolerable cost, it is wise to use the market to provide incentives for individuals and firms to reduce greenhouse gas pollution … While we recognize the barriers to a uniform global price on all carbon emissions, pricing emissions in the aviation sector via ICAO would be a good start … The ICAO Assembly only meets every three years, the EU ETS is only suspended for one year, and the unpriced flow of carbon emission into the atmosphere is increasing the risks to society every day.

After ICAO fails to adequately address the emissions problem – and it will in all likelihood fail, given its comprehensive failure to address the international aviation emissions problem to date – the EU trading scheme legislation would, it appears, apply again to international aviation. But of course both the US and China have barred their airlines from joining.

Laws to regulate the international carbon footprint of airlines, then, do not appear viable at all, in any sense, either now or in the immediate future.

Will airlines have an obligation to use biofuels?

Given the likelihood of future laws regulating aviation emissions, any requiring the use of biofuels by airlines seem equally remote.

Professor Susan Pond, chairperson of the Australian Initiative for Sustainable Aviation Fuels, has said that aviation “will be dependent on the same liquid jet fuel for many decades.”

While certification currently allows for up to a 50:50 mix of biofuel and conventional jet fuel, it will be “a considerable time before the industry has enough scale to meet even that mix.”

Manchester Metropolitan University research puts the position even more clearly: “Aviation currently uses kerosene for powering aircraft engines, and is likely to do so into the foreseeable future.”

The aviation climate change problem represents in microcosm the climate change problem generally. “Solving” the former might assist in addressing the latter. Neither seems likely.