How close are we to a global market for aircraft emissions?

Annie Petsonk

More than 50,000 new large aircraft are expected to take to the skies by 2040 as demand for international aviation skyrockets in emerging markets and beyond.

As a result, emissions from the industry are forecasted to triple or quadruple over the next couple of decades – and none of this pollution is covered by the Paris climate agreement.

While important efforts are underway to boost the efficiency of airplanes and to find more environmentally friendly fuels, they won’t be nearly enough to meet our climate goals. We need a policy proven to drive down emissions: A cap on total emissions from aviation, coupled with a market-based trading system that offers airlines incentives for flying cleaner.

Such an efficient, flexible system could be adopted as early as this year – but it will only happen with real leadership, especially on the part of the United States.

If international aviation were a country, it would be a top 10 emitter of carbon dioxide, on par with Germany or the United Kingdom. And in the absence of rules covering pollution from flights between countries, climate pollution from airplanes is expected to continue to soar.

Progress in the aviation sector has been a long time coming, however.

Nearly two decades ago, the international aviation industry convinced the United Nations Framework on Climate Change to hand responsibility for its emissions to another United Nations body with a long name, the International Civil Aviation Organization.

As global temperatures continued to rise, ICAO talked about the issue for 15 years until 2013, when Europe enforced a cap on emissions of inbound and outbound flights. Governments finally came to the table in Montreal to launch three years of intensive talks while Europe temporarily stopped the clock on its program.

The organization gave itself a deadline of October 7, 2016, to reach a deal.

The stakes are high

The spotlight is now on ICAO to adopt a deal that caps international aviation’s total emissions at 2020 levels, while giving airlines the option to purchase high-quality emissions units to cover their pollution increases as they retool and adjust to a new and cleaner reality.

The Obama administration knows that the stakes are high. If no deal is reached by early October, the clock will automatically restart on Europe’s emissions cap law, and Congress has enacted legislation to ignite a trade war if that happens.

Airlines: It’s good for business

As the official negotiations struggle on, some airlines are already moving forward to prepare for the new carbon regime.

A few, such as United Airlines, Virgin Australia and British Airways are testing and expanding the use of smarter flight behavior and new technology that help them reduce pollution in anticipation of the new rules.

Others are experimenting with biofuels, although the verdict is still out on whether biofuel will actually reduce overall emissions or cause pollution to swell as forests are turned into biofuel plantations.

Last September, meanwhile, 28 airlines executives and trade leaders published an open letter in the Financial Times endorsing a market-based solution to the industry’s climate pollution problem. Together they represent more than 90 percent of airline traffic.

Can the U.S. land a strong market-based solution for international aviation? Climate experts want it, industry wants it, and the planet needs it.

We have just over six months to make this happen and the clock is ticking.

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