On February 8, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a working group of the United Nations’ Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP), announced the first ever binding standards for aviation emissions, in the form of a carbon dioxide (CO2) cap and fuel efficiency standard. The rule was sent to the UN agency’s 36-State Governing Council for approval.

The airline industry accounts for around 2 percent of global carbon emissions, and around 3 percent of emissions in the United States. In 2013, commercial aviation (passenger, cargo and charter planes) contributed to 11 percent of U.S. transportation emissions.  While the industry has taken steps to increase fuel efficiency and use of alternative fuels, namely biofuels, the Federal Aviation Administration estimates U.S. aviation emissions will rise by 100 percent by 2050 under a “business-as-usual” scenario.  

Since fuels account for a quarter of airlines’ costs, increasing fuel efficiency is a win-win for both climate mitigation and airlines. The CAEP standards will mandate an overall 4 percent reduction in cruising fuel consumption across the industry by 2028, compared with 2016 levels. Actual reductions will range from 0 to 11 percent. All new aircraft designs starting in 2020, and new planes in operation by 2023, must comply. Existing aircraft will be exempt from the new regulation.

“The goal of this process is ultimately to ensure that when the next generation of aircraft types enter service, there will be guaranteed reductions in international CO2 emissions,” President Aliu said in a statement. By 2028, planes that don’t meet the new standards would have to be retired.

The White House applauded the announcement as a big step that “demonstrates that the international community continues to take action on climate change through collaboration on standards to reduce carbon pollution.” The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Federal Aviation Administration will be responsible for implementing the standards. Last summer EPA proposed an endangerment finding for aviation CO2 emissions, paving the way for regulating emissions.

The U.S. airline industry also embraced the announcement, considering it as a complement to its own voluntary commitment to improve fuel efficiency by 1.5 percent annually through 2020, with carbon-neutral growth from 2020 onwards. The Airlines for America's vice president for environmental affairs, Nancy Young, called the standards ambitious.

Environmentalists expressed frustration with the rules, considering them too weak to curb climate change. They argued that the new standards won’t budge emissions because of the aviation industry’s projected growth. EPA said it would now turn to negotiating a tough market-based mechanism later this year within ICAO, which could have a broader impact. The aviation industry maintains that a global standard will be easier for it to implement than country by country regulations.

The new rules are also good news for the biofuel sector. Aircraft are difficult to decarbonize, since they require energy-dense fuels. While strides in electric and hybrid jets have made progress, it’s assumed that liquid fuels will be required for aircraft for the foreseeable future.  As airlines look to decarbonize their fuel sources, biofuels are the natural choice, especially in the context of new regulation.  

While the new regulations may spur further investment, the industry has already made small but significant steps in decarbonization. In the past several years, major international carriers such as British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Quatar Airways and United Airlines have invested in aviation biofuels companies.  Airlines such as KLM, British Midland, Alaska Airlines, GOL and Lufthansa have either signed agreements to use biofuels or have begun using them on their flights.  Just last year, FedEx and Southwest Airlines bought the entire output of the yet to be completed Red Rock Biofuels, of Fort Collins, Colorado.   

“This agreement marks a true historic milestone in global efforts to curb aviation emissions. . . We believe it will act to strengthen the drive and need for sustainably sourced biofuels” said Jonas Helseth, Director at Bellona Europa, a Brussels based non-profit.

ICAO has a history of adopting its environment committee's standards without amendment, and it is likely that the proposed rules will be final when the full body meets in October. Once it is final, it will be binding on nations, including the United States.  


Author: Taotao Luo



For more information see: 

UN Panel Approves New Airplane Emissions Rules, The Hill

For The First Time Ever, The World Is Cracking Down On Airline Emissions, Climate Progress

Global Emissions Standard Seen by Greens as Too Lax, E&E Publishing

New ICAO Aircraft CO2 Standard One Step Closer To Final Adoption, International Civil Aviation Organization

World’s first ever cap on aviation emissions strengthens rationale for sustainably sourced biofuels, Bellona Europe

The airlines: who’s doing what in aviation biofuels?, Biofuels Digest