Aviation industry looks for more than hot air on emissions talks

Growth in emerging markets like China will lead to a rise in aviation emissions despite steady improvements in engine efficiency. [Timothy Spence]

This article is part of our special report Le Bourget 2015.

SPECIAL REPORT / With steady growth projected for decades to come, the aviation industry is banking on a global regulatory framework for curtailing carbon output to avoid a mishmash of regional policies like Europe’s emissions trading scheme.

As international negotiators talk, industry officials say they are already acting to dramatically improve aircraft efficiency and curtail carbon dioxide emissions that are linked to Earth’s temperature rise.

“This industry is more proactive than any other industry in reducing emissions,” Bob Lange, a senior vice president at Airbus, told EURACTIV at the Paris Air Show.

Aircraft producers and their suppliers are jockeying to promote their green credentials at the trade pageant at the 101-old Le Bourget airfield. The industry now accounts for about 2 percent of global carbon emissions, a figure that is expected to rise steadily amid projections that air traffic will double by 2030, with rapidly growing Asian markets leading the way.

The event comes six months ahead of the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference (COP21) which is tasked with producing a greenhouse gas-reducing successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. COP21 is also taking place at Le Bourget.

But today’s Le Bourget crowd is more focused on what happens in October 2016. That is when the assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is expected to consider a market-based system aimed at capping aviation emissions, after years of bureaucratic inaction and disagreement over the scope of a framework.

‘Encouraging pace’ on ICAO talks

Plane manufacturers and airlines are holding out hope that ICAO will produce a global market-based measure, or MBM, to avoid a hotchpotch of regional regulations like the EU’s Emissions Trading System (ETS), which has regulated aviation emissions within Europe since 2012.

And last week, the Obama administration announced that aviation CO2 emissions pose a threat to public health, vowing to take steps to regulate the industry if the ICAO talks fail.

The ICAO negotiations are “moving ahead at a very encouraging pace,” said Michael McGill, executive director of the Air Transport Action Group, which represents the aircraft, engine and parts manufacturers.

“We fully believe that a global scheme developed under ICAO is absolutely appropriate for a global industry like the aviation industry, and that’s why we’ve been really supportive of the ICAO process to develop the MBM,” McGill told EURACTIV.

Crowded skies ahead

Still, a combination of technological progress and regulatory measures will only slow the inevitable rise in emissions produced by an industry that has remained immune from economic and political shocks.

Some 32,000 new aircraft will be built over the next 20 years, according to Airbus. It’s main plane-making rival Boeing released forecasts on Tuesday showing that the number of passenger planes in the air will double, to more than 43,000, in the same period.

The European Commission projects that global international aviation emissions will be around 70 percent higher in 2020 than in 2005. ICAO estimates on the conservative side that emissions will rise 300% by 2050.

Some studies suggest that even the most ambitious efforts to curtail greenhouse gas emissions don’t go far enough because they focus on a single gas – CO2.

Researchers at the German Aerospace Center, or DLR, are calling for a common market-based approach to cutting carbon along with nitrogen and other emissions produced from burning aviation fuel.

“For decades, we have been seeing a significant increase in carbon dioxide emissions from aviation, and this trend has continued since 1990, the reference year for the Kyoto Protocol,” Robert Sausen, a researcher at DLR’s Institute of Atmospheric Physics and an author of the study, said in releasing the study ahead of the Paris Air Show. “In addition to this, the aircraft emissions of species affecting climate, such as nitrogen oxides, oxides of sulphur, water vapour and carbon particulates, have been increasing because of aviation.”

The authors say that global CO2 emissions from aviation were responsible for around 1.6 percent of global warming in 2005, but the figure jumps to 4.9 percent when the other aviation pollutants are considered.

CO2, NOx – or nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – and sulfur oxides (SOx) are among the emissions produced by burning aircraft fuel and all contribute to climate change.

The DLR study’s concerns about other emissions are nothing new. Scientists who drafted the 1999 aviation report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also warned about the impact of a cocktail of greenhouse gases. That report encouraged further review of ways to reduce emissions, including market-based measures.

The EU, United States and ICAO have all taken steps to set nitrogen standards for aircraft engines, and researchers involved in the EU-funded Clean Sky innovation project contend that engines in the early stages of development will drastically reduce both carbon and nitrogen output – though it could be years before those technologies are commercially viable.

The DLR team says that with anticipated growth in the aviation industry, “the implementation of global or at least internationally coordinated instruments for the reduction of the non-CO2 impact of international aviation on climate change seems to be necessary expeditiously”.

Other emissions overlooked

Tim Johnson, director of the Aviation Environment Federation in London, doesn’t see that happening. He told EURACTIV that “the debate over CO2 has been so fraught – bear in mind that ICAO has been reviewing this now since 1998 and it’s now 2015 – that I think it’s desperate to find a starting point and that’s the reason why we have focused on the CO2 emissions”.

ATAG’s McGill worries that progress made on CO2 could come crashing down if the ICAO negotiations were expanded. “At this stage, if there was an attempt to broaden the scope of the [ICAO] agreement it would set us back many, many years in the negotiations, and we don’t believe that’s in anyone’s interest let alone from an environmental perspective,” he said.

The DLR researchers recommend a cap-and-trade scheme for all aviation emissions. In addition, Sausen and his colleagues call for changes in flight patterns and air traffic control improvements to reduce delays and congestion, which cost airlines money and elevate pollution levels.

Assuming a deal is reached by the major aviation countries to reduce CO2 and other emissions, the DLR team envisions “the temperature change induced by aviation could be reduced by up to 70 percent in the year 2100 compared to the business-as-usual development.”

“Asia-Pacific will lead in world [air] traffic in 2034 and China will be the world’s biggest aviation market within 10 years, and clearly Asia and emerging markets are the catalyst for strong air traffic growth,” John Leahy, Airbus chief operating officer for customers, said in releasing the company’s Global Market Forecast.

“Airplane design is about balance and trade-offs. Since the 1960s, concern for the environment has involved finding a balance between noise, emissions for local air quality (NOx [oxides of nitrogen], smoke, etc.) and fuel burn (economics),” said Dr. Alan H. Epstein, vice president for technology and environment for Pratt & Whitney. “We now have fuel burn for climate change. So, the same concerns but perhaps the best balanced solution will change.

Expanding discussions beyond CO2 emission from aircraft “is not on the political agenda,” Robert Sausen, a researcher at DLR’s Institute of Atmospheric Physics, told EURACTIV in a telephone interview. The ICAO negotiators “are struggling with [CO2], and if you have not solved Problem A, you will not try to solve the next problem. What you normally do when you’re building a house is and you won’t starting building the second floor until you’ve built the first floor.”

The global airline industry has committed to carbon-neutral growth by 2020, an ambitious goal given the steady growth of the passenger travel despite global economic and political shocks.

Overall, transport accounts for 23 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and is growing despite efficiencies, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The Air Transport Action Group in Geneva estimates that the global aviation industry produces around 2 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions, and accounts for 12 percent of CO2 emissions from overall transportation sources.

Airbus officials estimate the industry has cut emissions by at least 25 percent since 2000 and anticipates further improvements in containing carbon output. The replacement of more than 13,000 older, less efficient aircraft over the next 20 years is also expected to play a part.

  • 15-21 June: Paris Air Show [FR]
  • 30 Nov-11 Dec.: UN Climate Change Conference [FR]
  • 2016: Next triennial meeting of the 191-member ICAO assembly
  • 2020: Aviation industry’s target date for achieving carbon-neutral growth
  • 2050: Aviation industry’s target date for achieving a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions (from 2005 levels)

International organisations

European Union

Trade and Industry


Subscribe to our newsletters