Greenhouse gas emissions from airplanes are no small matter: if the aviation industry were a country, it would be the seventh largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world – and a new report shows us the worst is yet to come.
The report released today out of Manchester Metropolitan University shows international aviation emissions are projected to increase by anywhere from a substantial 50% to a whopping 500%, and that means the aviation industry won’t be able to get anywhere near meeting its own modest commitments to reducing its emissions – unless it adopts a global market-based measure.
The aviation industry has voluntarily committed to achieve no net increase in emissions from 2020 onward and to halve its emissions by 2050 from its 2005 levels through, it says, efficiency improvements including improved air traffic management, on-board technologies and biofuels.
However, the study, from Professor of Atmospheric Science and Director of Centre for Aviation, Transport, and the Environment (CATE) David Lee, Ph.D., shows emissions from the sector are projected to roughly triple, and make it impossible for airlines to meet their own commitments. Even with speculatively optimistic scenarios for such efficiency improvements, Lee found:
None of the measures, or their combinations, for any growth scenario managed to meet the 2020 carbon-neutral goal, the 2005 stabilization of emissions goal, or the 2005-10% stabilization of emissions goal at 2050.
The maximum reductions over [business-as-usual] technology and operational improvements were clearly achieved by the extension of the existing [market-based measures] out to 2050. (page 22)
This means the aviation industry is now facing a huge gap between emissions it can reduce through efficiency improvements and its goal of carbon neutral growth from 2020.
Just take a look at this telling figure from Lee's report, which shows that even under the most optimistic technological scenarios for improving the efficiency of international aviation, emissions for the years 2006-2050 are expected to increase dramatically:
As Figure A1 from the report shows, even under the most optimistic technological scenarios for improving the efficiency of international aviation, emissions for the years 2006-2050 are expected to increase dramatically. The most aggressive uptake of operational and other technologies as well as biofuels still yields a yawning gap between projected emissions (lower boundary of green shaded area) and the emissions targets on the table, whether those are the targets proposed by governments (horizontal pink lines) or by the industry itself (horizontal grey ladder). Source
So, how can the aviation industry bridge the gap?
Industry spokespeople assert that from 2021, this gap could be filled through a market-based measure. However, the industry also seems to want to delay developing any serious global market-based approach until the gap is looming to be filled.
Lee sees the handwriting on the wall: there is no other way to fill the emissions gap than market-based measures. Our European colleagues at Transport & Environment agree, saying:
The only remaining means to bridge this emissions gap would be to extend market based measures like emissions trading on a global basis.
This measure already has support from EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard, as well, who said last week in a trip to the United States, that that "we of course want a global, market-based mechanism" for reducing aviation emissions.
The gap will need to be filled, and the time to construct the gap-filling mechanism is now. Lee’s study makes crystal clear the futility of waiting until 2021 to construct the market-based measure, as the airlines have advocated. If airlines simply delay dealing with the issue until 2021, when demand for gap-fillers takes off, they risk substantially higher prices for filling those gaps. And in an industry famous for its thin profit margins, delay – and its attendant higher costs – really isn’t a welcome option.
Airlines that want the flexibility to determine how best to meet the gap – for example, those that want to begin saving emissions now, in order to draw on those reductions for the future – ought to throw their weight behind the development of a global market-based mechanism in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
Airlines, countries — including the United States – and environmental groups have all agreed aviation emissions should be addressed in ICAO, so we’ll be looking to the Administration to reach a global agreement, and to reach it quickly.