Overview of the Carbon Mitigation in the International Aviation Industry

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By Pianpian Wang and Reed Shapiro

The year 2017 has been designed as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development by the United Nations 70th General Assembly. The key areas this campaign aims to promote are “resource efficiency, environmental protection and climate change.” As a crucial sector supporting the tourism industry, aviation has been gearing up to deal with climate change by reducing its carbon emissions in recent years.


Aviation is generally recognized as being responsible for 12% of CO2 emissions from all transport sources globally. When looking at all emissions on a global scale, flights produced 781 million tonnes of CO2 in 2015, about 2% of the 36 billion tonnes of CO2 produced by humans annually.


Airlines Are the Main Targets

Under the Paris Agreement, domestic aviation emissions are managed under the nationally determined contributions (NDCs), yet to mitigate the carbon emissions from international flights, the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) – the international body which regulates the international aviation sector – adopted the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) on 6 October 2016. The CORSIA is designed to complement the basket of mitigation measures the air transportation community is already pursuing to reduce CO2 emissions from international aviation. CORSIA has been focusing on the following areas:


a. State Action Plans and Market-based Measures (MBMS)

As of April 21, 2017, 67 States, representing more than 87.5% of international aviation activity, intend to voluntarily participate in the global MBM scheme from its outset. That means that starting from 2021, the 67 participating states will collect and calculate their international flights’ carbon emissions and purchase carbon offsets to neutralize the carbon impact as well as support projects that reduce carbon emissions and generate carbon offsets.

 airport, people, trip, travel

Meanwhile, the European Commission published a proposal on February 3rd of this year, which envisages continuing with the current approach for aviation under the EU Emissions Trading System from 2017 to 2021. This means that intercontinental flights departing from or landing in the EU would continue to be exempt from the EU ETS.


b. Sustainable Alternative Fuels

Since fuel consumption is the main source of CO2 emissions in the aviation sector, sustainable and lower-emission alternative fuels will play a significant role in the CORSIA with a focus on making air trips greener.


Currently, biofuels are the primary alternative to traditional fossil fuels. More specifically, the aviation industry is investigating second-generation feedstocks that can be grown or produced without negatively impacting food supplies, water or land use.


With that said, the main challenges currently stymying a wide deployment of alternative jet fuels are not technical, but commercial and political. This is because a number of alternative jet fuel production pathways are more expensive than the fossil fuels currently being used. Governmental incentives are needed to allow airlines to make these shifts.


c. Global Aspirational Goals

In October 2013, ICAO and its Member States agreed to work together to strive towards achieving a collective medium term global goal of keeping the net global CO2 emissions from international aviation at the same level post-2020 (so-called “carbon neutral growth from 2020”).


To maintain this momentum, ICAO adopted a draft CO2 standard for new aircrafts in February 2016. According to a preliminary analysis by US-based International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), the standard will require an average of a 4% reduction in the cruise fuel consumption of new aircrafts starting in 2028, compared to 2015 deliveries, with the actual reductions ranging from 0 to 11%.


Don’t Forget the Airports

passenger, flight, man, airplane, tripWhile aircraft operators have been the point of focus in showing concerns about carbon mitigation, airports – equally important venues and players when it comes to facilitating flights – have been working towards sustainable development as well.


As of May 8, 2017, 189 airports around the world have participated in a carbon emissions mapping and reporting program hosted by Airport Carbon Accreditation, an organization that develops and implements carbon management certification standard for airports. By understanding the sources of carbon emissions and taking actions to reduce their impact, airports can create a better environment for attracting airlines, airport business vendors, and travelers.


We Are all Part of Carbon Mitigation

We travelers also play a key role in acting to reduce carbon emissions. It is even possible to posit that the public currently has more potential than the stakeholders above (airlines and airports) in the aviation industry to drive emissions mitigation.


As individuals, we enjoy the convenience of flying anywhere, and are not obligated to pay for the part we play in contributing to these ever-growing emissions of the aviation sector. Although relevant international organizations, airports and airline companies are putting the above agreements, legal decisions, and initiatives into place, these measures require time to refine technologies, get other prerequisites ready for implementation, and actually go into effect (some of these regulations are more than a decade away from coming into play). We cannot afford to lose more time in the battle addressing climate change and environmental protection.


Offsetting your trips and emissions from travel (including both aviation and ground transport) is much easier than you think, and the benefits are permanent and immediate – something policy just can’t touch in terms of effectiveness and urgency.




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