Last week a little-known U.N. agency took a step forward in the effort to address climate change. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the global standard setter for aviation, approved a road map for establishing a ceiling on aviation emissions in 2020. The agreement, which calls for a new “market-based measure” starting in 2020, will help limit a large and fast-growing source of emissions. Reaching a successful agreement, however, will require a renewed commitment to action by the United States.
Aviation accounts for three percent of global carbon dioxide emissions and 13 percent of global transportation emissions. Airlines also produce other global warming pollutants besides carbon dioxide, causing the sector to account for five percent of global warming. The sector’s contribution to global warming is expected to increase significantly as its emissions are projected to grow 300 to 700 percent by 2050.
Policies such as those agreed to in ICAO are necessary because existing actions by the aviation sector and the U.S. government will not control this emissions growth. Even the U.S. government acknowledges this fact, stating in its United States Aviation Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan — an official submission to ICAO — that the combination of potential technological improvements, more efficient operations, and alternative fuels will still leave the U.S. between 34 and 59 million metric tons short of its 2020 goal of carbon neutral growth for U.S. commercial aviation (based on 2005 levels).
This analysis is consistent with ICAO’s own findings that market-based measures will be necessary to achieve the ICAO and industry-adopted goal of carbon neutral growth by 2020. In the future, analysts expect this gap to balloon, growing to 489 to 936 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2050.
The current ICAO agreement, however, remains only a roadmap, and countries must still reach a final accord in 2016. U.S. leadership domestically and internationally can help mobilize the political will to ensure the strongest agreement possible. Strong domestic action against aviation emissions would not only help the U.S. to meet its domestic emission reduction goals, it would also signal the unwavering resolve of the U.S. government to address aviation emissions, encouraging a global agreement.
As indicated in the U.S. plan to ICAO, the U.S. should invest in the Next Generation Air Traffic Controlling system, known as NextGen, which will both reduce emissions and help the airlines earn greater revenues and offer higher quality service. More direct routes could save $23 million and 14 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2018 with 35 percent fewer delays for passengers.
These investments in a safer and more efficient air traffic system must be paired with new emissions reductions measures that will drive innovation. Such measures should include an expanded commitment to alternative aviation fuels, such as advanced biofuels. The most effective biofuels policies would take the form of a renewable fuel standard that would require airlines to a use specific percentage of biofuels by certain dates, but give the airlines discretion over which fuels to buy. Such a policy would create a strong market signal, encouraging expanded private sector investments in aviation biofuels, while allowing the government to ensure that airlines use only sustainable and environmentally sound fuels.
Most importantly, the U.S. administration should pursue new binding limits on domestic emissions. Such limits could be implemented through efficiency standards for new engines, a domestic market-based measure, or many other approaches. Such policies could drive real emissions reductions while giving the airlines the flexibility to comply in the best way for their businesses.
The administration already has the authority to develop such binding limits under the Clean Air Act, as outlined in the Center for American Progress report “A Domestic Alternative for Aviation Carbon.” Developing new standards now under the Clean Air Act has the added benefit of potentially helping the administration smooth the adoption of the eventual ICAO agreement. The U.S. government must implement any ICAO agreement through domestic regulations and, since the 1970s, the U.S. government has used the Clean Air Act to implement ICAO pollution agreements. In that time, however, international agreement and Clean Air Act regulations have become more controversial. Starting the regulatory process now could help create the political momentum and legal vehicle necessary for the U.S. government to implement the ICAO agreement.
President Obama’s climate action plan shows that the administration is serious about acting on its commitment to limit pollution that causes global warming and is ready to use executive authority to achieve necessary reductions. The agreement in ICAO creates a new opportunity to use its existing authority to drive significant emissions reductions and accelerate global action.
Rebecca Lefton is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. Samuel Grausz is a independent climate policy expert, currently attending Stanford Business School.