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As world leaders this week gathered in Copenhagen to seek consensus on how to combat climate change, airlines, airports and other air industry constituents called on them to adopt a "global sectoral approach" to minimizing aviation's environmental impact. Left off the agenda during climate change negotiations 12 years ago in Kyoto, the aviation industry, through the International Air Transport Association and International Civil Aviation Organization, has set its own emissions reductions targets and favors inclusion in any global climate change agreement (or a promise of future inclusion). The industry insists on a global aviation framework, to be overseen by ICAO, rather than regional plans, like the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, which is scheduled to include aviation from 2012.
Both individually and as part of various trade groups and industry associations, airlines already have charted progress in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. They have retired or sold off gas-guzzling aircraft in favor of more fuel-efficient planes, started experimenting with jet fuel alternatives, cut routing distances, refined landing procedures, developed voluntary offset programs for customers and enacted many other operational changes. "Over the last 40 years, fuel efficiency improved by 70 percent," said IATA director general Giovanni Bisignani, speaking this week during an ICAO meeting in Copenhagen held in conjunction with the United Nations Climate Change conference. "Last year, aviation's carbon footprint was just under 670 million tons of CO 2. That will shrink by 7 percent this year--5 percent from the recession and 2 percent as a direct result" of IATA and ICAO's multipronged emissions reduction strategy.
According to a September statement by British Airways CEO Willie Walsh, the Copenhagen conference "represents a historic opportunity for aviation to join the mainstream of the world's efforts to combat climate change. International aviation emissions were not included in the Kyoto Protocol 12 years ago. Now we have a chance to rectify that omission--and we must seize it."
Speaking in Copenhagen, ICAO council president Roberto Kobeh Gonzalez said: "The projected growth in public demand for air transport in the years to come could exceed our capability to limit the impact of air travel on climate change unless we continue a progressive course of developing and implementing bold and effective solutions."
Air Industry Sets Goals
IATA's goals include achieving carbon-neutral growth by 2020 and by 2050 reducing 2005's CO 2emission levels by 50 percent. ICAO also shared the details of an agreement reached in October by "member states representing 93 percent of global commercial air traffic." To be submitted in 2010 to ICAO's assembly, it includes "a global goal of 2 percent annual improvement in fuel efficiency until the year 2050," aircraft emissions standards, submission of member states' CO 2reports and reduction plans, and assistance for developing countries.
Measuring emissions and monitoring progress must be handled centrally and globally, according to industry officials. "How can the emissions from an international flight be assigned to one country for measurement, quota and reduction purposes?" asked Cathay Pacific CEO Tony Tyler, according to a company statement. "National or regional solutions are just not practical. They will only lead to a patchwork of conflicting and overlapping regulations, and higher fares for our customers. We want to be part of a scheme that avoids competitive distortion and the notion of so-called carbon leakage where emissions in one part of the world are effectively transferred to another by the poor design of policy instruments. The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme is a good example of where businesses could set up operations outside of the EU to avoid paying for their emissions inside."
Association of European Airlines secretary general Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus also described regional solutions as "distortive and divisive," according to an AEA statement.
A U.K. House of Commons Transport Committee report issued this week also took issue with EU ETS, describing the scheme's track record as "appalling." Citing a U.K. National Audit Office report, the committee wrote that the initial phases of EU ETS "were ineffective ... due to the emission caps being set too high; options to purchase carbon credits from outside the scheme; and initial allowances being too generous. The National Audit Office is cautious about expecting too much from EU ETS Phase 3, which will include aviation. It may prove insufficient to drive investment in low-carbon aviation, especially in these difficult economic times."
At least among commercial operators, there appears to be agreement that international aviation emissions reductions efforts be coordinated by ICAO. Citing global efforts to reduce aircraft noise, IATA's Bisignani said ICAO "has a proven track record." IATA also has said that an ICAO-supervised framework should ensure "that aviation be fully accountable for its carbon emissions and required to pay only once for these emissions."
In a fact sheet prepared for the Copenhagen conference, the European Union agreed that ICAO "should develop" market-based instruments to reduce emissions, and said EU ETS carbon limits "will be reviewed in the light of a global agreement." Those limits call for caps on overall emissions produced by flights to, from and within the EU at 5 percent below 2005 levels in 2013 and 10 percent by 2020.
To achieve IATA's, the EU's or any other emissions reduction goals, airlines have much work to do. Many expect that alternative jet fuels will play a major role. "Sustainable biofuels from crops like camelina, jatropha and algae are the most exciting new opportunity," said Bisignani. "A few years ago they were a dream. Today, we can say that five airlines have tested them successfully. They are safe, and they have the potential to reduce our carbon footprint by up to 80 percent over the lifecycle of the fuel. We expect certification by 2011 at the latest."
The test flights started in February 2008 when Virgin Atlantic "proved to a sometimes-skeptical industry that it is possible to replicate the very strict performance characteristics of normal jet fuel using a combination of coconut oil and babassu nut oil, both sustainably cultivated crops," according to Virgin information. "Within the next decade we expect to see a significant contribution from second-generation biofuels, made from truly sustainable second-generation feedstocks, such as algae, or using waste biomass, like woodchips. We're not saying that biofuels alone are the answer. But, as new aircraft technologies can take a couple of decades or more to be rolled out across airlines' fleets, a 'drop in' lower carbon alternative to traditional kerosene--which requires no technical modifications to the aircraft or fuel systems--can provide a really useful short- to medium-term opportunity for the industry to reduce its emissions."
Other airlines since have followed Virgin's lead, including Air New Zealand, Continental Airlines, Japan Airlines and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. KLM last month also announced its participation in the SkyEnergy consortium "to ensure clean, silent and sustainable air transport worldwide." KLM CEO Peter Hartman said such a goal "is technically feasible. We have demonstrated that it is possible. Government, industry and society at large must now join forces to ensure that we quickly gain access to a continuous supply of biofuel."
Meanwhile, Qantas last month became the latest airline to formally join the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group, which seeks to "accelerate the development and commercialization of sustainable aviation fuel." Other members include Air France, Air New Zealand, Alaska Airlines, ANA, Boeing, British Airways, Cargolux, Cathay Pacific, Gulf Air, Japan Airlines, KLM, SAS, Tuifly and Virgin.
ICAO also announced that a global framework for development and use of alternative fuels "was adopted in November. This development has positioned aviation to be the first sector to use sustainable alternative fuels on a global basis."
Though fleet renewal helps airlines cut costs and better serve customers, it also is one of the biggest factors in reducing aviation emissions. The latest announcement along these lines came this week from United Airlines. The carrier ordered 25 Airbus A350 XWB and 25 Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft to replace its international Boeing 747 and 767 fleets from 2016. United estimated that "total fuel burn for the 50 new aircraft improves by about 33 percent compared to the aircraft they will replace, saving roughly 175 million gallons of fuel annually. This efficiency improvement, combined with the down-gauging of aircraft size, will reduce carbon emissions for the 50 aircraft by about 1.7 million metric tons."
EasyJet last month called for "mandatory emission standards for aircraft" led by ICAO. "Government's first instinct is to tax, but this won't deliver sustainable aviation as the industry's growth is concentrated in China and India," according to an easyJet statement. "Step change technology is in the pipeline, and we need tough legislation on emission standards for it to be delivered sooner. The standards would apply to all developed countries. Governments would have to play an active role in funding research and development."
In the United States, many industry constituencies are advocating more government funding for a new, satellite-based air traffic control system. According to the Air Transport Association, the "NextGen" system would save "10 percent to 15 percent in unnecessary fuel burn and emissions. Had we had this modernized system in 2008, even at the midrange of savings, an additional 22 million metric tons of CO 2would have been saved, equivalent to taking 4 million cars off the road that year."
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