Study finds technology and biofuels will not be enough to meet aviation carbon targets without emissions trading

Study finds technology and biofuels will not be enough to meet aviation carbon targets without emissions trading | David Lee,Nancy Young

(photo: DFW)

Wed 6 March 2013 – The aviation industry regards market-based measures (MBMs) as a temporary fix in achieving the carbon-neutral growth (CNG) goal from 2020 onwards until the benefits of new technology and operational advances, together with the uptake of sustainable biofuels, are realised. However, a new study by Prof David Lee of Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) concludes that CNG through to 2050 cannot be achieved without MBMs such as emissions trading playing a permanent role. The study attempts to quantify the likely mitigation effects of future technology, operational gains and the impact of biofuels against a backdrop of a fast-growing aviation sector. Lee says the study can help inform the current ICAO negotiations, which are moving into an important phase with the next meeting of government officials making up the High-level Group on International Aviation and Climate Change (HGCC) taking place March 25-27.

Total global aviation carbon emissions in 2006 amounted to 630 million tonnes (Mtonnes), of which 62% were international and 38% were domestic, states the ‘Bridging the aviation CO2 emissions gap: why emissions trading is needed’ study. By 2050, forecasts project the global total to reach between 1,034 and 3,105 Mtonnes, depending on future growth of air traffic and the level of mitigation in the key areas of technology, operations, biofuels and MBMs. Of this total, international CO2 emissions (therefore excluding domestic) are expected to increase from 391 Mtonnes in 2006 to between approximately 620 and 2,031 Mtonnes by 2050, a 1.5 to 5-fold increase. Assuming business-as-usual (BAU) emissions reductions from technological and operational improvements, a central growth scenario projects emissions of 1,638 Mtonnes by 2050, or 332 Mtonnes fewer under an optimistic, or ‘maximum feasible reductions’ (MFR), scenario.

 The distinction between global and international aviation emissions is important in the ICAO context as the UN agency is only responsible for limitations or reductions of the latter, as laid down in the Kyoto Protocol. At its 2010 Assembly, ICAO member states agreed a global annual average fuel efficiency improvement of 2% until 2020 and a similar aspirational goal from 2021 to 2050. The A37-19 resolution also called for a medium term global aspirational goal of keeping the global net carbon emissions from international aviation at the same level from 2020 – carbon-neutral growth (CNG). Canada, Mexico and the United States have proposed a more ambitious goal of CNG using 2005 as a baseline, whereas the EU went further and is looking for a 10% reduction by 2020 compared to 2005 levels.

The focus of the work that Prof Lee and his researchers have carried out is to examine whether there is an “emissions gap” between various scenarios of aviation emissions reductions out to 2050, ranging from BAU to MFR, and these various goals. The study considers 2050 projections for global as well as international aviation emissions and the potential savings from technology and operational improvements, plus the utilisation of biofuels. It also looks at the potential CO2 emissions savings if the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) was applied to international aviation – as originally intended prior to the recent ‘stop the clock’ proposal – up till 2050.

The researchers used assessments by the UK’s Committee on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency on estimated biofuel take-up by 2050 to contribute emissions reductions of 5%, or around 82 Mtonnes, based on a 10% usage and 50% life-cycle CO2 reductions under a “likely” scenario, to a 30% take-up, or a 15% reduction in emissions, under a “speculative” scenario. Using other research work, a 2% market penetration of biofuels by 2020 is deemed feasible, says the study.

It finds that none of the measures, or their combinations, for any traffic growth scenario manages to meet the ICAO aspirational 2020 CNG goal by 2050, let alone the more ambitious goals proposed by the EU, US, Canada and Mexico. The 2% goal would only just be met by 2050 through MFR from technology and operations and the “speculative” uptake of biofuels.

However, the researchers point out that the extension of current market-based measures like the EU ETS offers the greatest mitigation potential. “If a global emissions trading scheme were to be constructed that covered all international aviation, the emissions savings could be even larger than all other measures calculated in this study,” they conclude.

“The study shows that we need all available measures to reduce aviation CO2 emissions: technology, biofuels and, critically, MBMs as a ‘basket of measures’ approach,” Prof Lee told GreenAir. “In the bigger scheme of things, we have until about 2020 before total CO2 emissions must start declining fast. Otherwise we risk overshooting a 2 degree target by 2100 and the world we leave to many future generations will not be like this one. Currently, CO2 emissions are on the wrong track and all sectors need to participate in correcting that.”

The aviation sector also agrees that MBMs will be necessary in achieving the CNG 2020 target, which goes further than ICAO’s in that it is a firm goal rather than just aspirational. However, the sector believes MBMs need only be a temporary gap-filler while new technology and biofuels come on-stream. Last week, IATA Director General Tony Tyler said: “We fully expect that technology, operations and infrastructure measures alone will provide the long-term solution for aviation’s sustainable growth.” (see article).

Nancy Young, Vice President Environment for trade association Airlines for America (A4A) agrees. “We are a committed member of the worldwide aviation industry coalition that supports fuel efficiency targets through 2020 and carbon-neutral growth from 2020, subject to industry and government investment in technology, operations and infrastructure,” she said. “The proper role of MBMs in this framework is as a gap-filler if we are not able to meet our targets through other means.”

Young sees no requirement for MBMs to be implemented by any state or region before 2020. “There are three reasons,” she points out. “Firstly, we are highly incentivised through the cost of fuel to seek fuel efficiency and other means of getting emissions reductions – MBMs are there to incentivise where reductions are not already occurring. Secondly, ICAO has agreed with the CNG goal from 2020 and if states were to adopt MBM measures before then, it would interfere with the ICAO step-by-step, international approach. Lastly, there is a need to get ATM measures like Europe’s Single European Sky and the United States’ NextGen programmes on track, along with the development of alternative fuels and other efforts, in order to build the foundation for CNG from 2020 and before siphoning money out of the industry.”

She said any attempt by the EU to reimpose its unilateral and extraterritorial scheme to international flights before 2020 would be inappropriate when efforts were being made through ICAO to build an MBM framework with a set of agreed rules that could be applied from 2020 to support CNG. She added: “I find it extremely worrisome that the EU has said it will revert back to its extraterritorial application of the EU ETS if in its sole judgement it decides it is not satisfied with what happens at ICAO. It’s not an international, cooperative approach to negotiation.”

Lee is unconvinced that MBMs should only be a stop-gap measure of last resort. “I would suggest the data do not show that MBMs are a short-term gap-filler,” he responded. “They may be in the strictest sense and literally-speaking, but that implies that technology and biofuels will win out in the longer term, and the data doesn’t show that.

“Let’s also remember the climate change issue of CO2 – the absolute emissions in any given year don’t matter very much. What matters in terms of the contribution of aviation to the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is effectively the area under the curve, or cumulative emissions. If you eyeball any of the figures, you can then see that the early reductions, combined with sustained reductions in emissions by MBMs, will do the job better than a later fall in emissions.”

According to Lee, fleet overall fuel efficiency has historically been at just over 1% per annum and believes a 2% improvement would be unprecedented. A4A’s Young said latest IATA data showed the industry was on track in meeting its 1.5% annual fuel efficiency goal.

Lee, Director at MMU’s Centre for Aviation, Transport and the Environment (CATE) and one of the most pre-eminent atmospheric scientists studying aviation’s impact on climate change, said his latest study follows up a November 2011 ‘Bridging the Emissions Gap’ report for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which outlined pathways to deliver additional CO2 reductions from industry, including aviation and shipping.

Lee and his colleagues have another study in the pipeline that will aim to help inform the current ICAO HGCC discussions in regard to the allocation of international emissions under a global MBM framework.

Europe would prefer an approach based on departing aircraft whereas the United States and other major states are leaning towards sovereign airspace as a basis for allocation, which could possibly be extended to Flight Information Regions (FIRs). A third option, based on an aircraft operator’s national registration is also being considered by the HGCC.

The issue has the potential to upset the HGCC discussions due to the scope of the international aviation emissions that would be covered by a global framework. According to Lee, based on 2006 emissions calculated using the ICAO CAEP-approved inventory model FAST, only 22% of international emissions (14% of the global total) would be allocated on a departing basis to borders, the airspace approach. International overflights account for 33% of international emissions, with international flights over water making up 44%.

According to an analysis of the various options, Dave Southgate, a recently retired former Australian representative on ICAO’s CAEP, finds departing flights the most equitable approach and also the most transparent and administratively simple. The airspace approach, on the other hand, “is demonstrably the poorest option,” he says. “It provides virtually no room for independent scrutiny of allocations and, depending on the scheme design, could impose carbon obligations on countries which have no direct involvement in the economic benefits of flights. It is evident that any rigorous airspace approach would be extremely complex to administer. It would almost certainly result in significant carbon leakage and would be likely to lead to the adoption of practices that would reduce the overall CO2 efficiency of international aviation.”

The next meeting of the HGCC is due to consider written proposals from the 17 members on this issue and other divergent views on a framework for MBMs.

MMU CATE ‘Bridging the aviation CO2 emissions gap: why emissions trading is needed’ study
Airlines for America (A4A) - Environment
Huffington Post blog by Jake Schmidt, NRDC
Environmental Defense Fund blog by Annie Petsonk
Transport & Environment press release on study
Reuters: ‘U.S. offers airspace-based emissions regime’



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