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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Aviation and Emissions

Air Date: Week of

The water vapor in airplane contrails acts as a greenhouse gas. (Photo: Flickr CC Francois Roche)

After a ten-year stalemate, the UN group in charge of combating greenhouse gas emissions from airplanes came to an agreement on how to do just that. Airline trade groups are calling the decision historic. But some environmental groups think the resolution doesn’t go far enough. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Sarah Burt, an attorney with the law firm Earthjustice, about the scope of the resolution.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Next month, thousands of diplomats, journalists, and environmentalists from around the world will fly to Cancun, Mexico for another round of UN climate change negotiations. Ironically, the greenhouse gases from all that air travel is not one of the topics they’ll be discussing.

The UN gave the responsibility for airplane emissions to the ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization. The group met recently in Montreal to discuss climate change emissions from planes and, after a decade long impasse, they came up with an agreement. Some are calling it an historic agreement. Sarah Burt is an attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice, specializing in international transportation and climate change issues.

BURT: The problem is really that aviation is responsible for a significant and growing percentage of global emissions of greenhouse gasses. It’s about two percent of global emissions of CO2 equivalent, so all gasses that are greenhouse gasses. But, when you take into account the fact that these emissions are at high altitude, and the fact that aircrafts also emit other non-greenhouse gasses like water vapor which are aircraft contrails, the impact of those emissions at altitude has a magnifying effect, and so they’re really responsible for about three to three and a half percent of global climate change.

GELLERMAN: And, there’s more people flying in more airplanes to more places.

BURT: That’s right, aviation growing really very rapidly, both domestic aviation and international aviation. In fact, international aviation is supposed to just about double in the next 25 to 30 years, so that’s a significant increase in the number of planes there are up in the skies.

Sarah Burt is an attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice. (Earthjustice)

GELLERMAN: But aren’t airplanes supposedly becoming more fuel efficient?

BURT: Well, they’re not there yet. The airlines will tell you that they are doing all they can, trying to maximize their fuel efficiency. In fact, there is a lot that still remains to be done. For example, we use, in the United States, a ground based navigation system, which means that aircraft actually have to zigzag across the sky they have to lower their altitude to make contact with navigation systems on the ground and then go back to higher altitude again. Whereas if we had a satellite-based navigation system, they’d be able to fly at a more constant altitude, which would be much more efficient.

GELLERMAN: Well now the international civil aviation organization, this ICAO, says they’ve come up with an agreement. They have a solution, right?

BURT: They have come up with an agreement. A lot of the details of that agreement are still to be worked out. But, what has tentatively been agreed to is a cap of emissions from aviation at 2020 levels. And then also a two percent per year efficiency gain from 2020 until 2050.

GELLERMAN: So, they’ve come up with this agreement. These seem like ambitious goals. I mean, you’ve got two percent more efficiency per year, but when all is said and done, is there more going to be said than done, because it’s ten years out?

BURT: Well, the fact that an agreement was reached is significant. It means that globally the international community is onboard with addressing emissions from aviation. The details of the agreement really are not so ambitious. It’s true that they have agreed to a two percent efficiency gains per year, but when you compare that to the fact that industry growth is projected to be at about three to five percent per year, you can see that those efficiency gains are far outstripped by growth in the number of aircraft that are going to be out there. And also, it means carrying on business as usual for the next ten years in terms of flying old planes and using inefficient engines. Really the agreement reflects what the industry sees as being feasible and not too economically costly, rather than what the science and engineers say is not only possible but necessary in order to have a significant impact on emissions reductions from aviation.

The water vapor in airplane contrails acts as a greenhouse gas. (Photo: Flickr CC Francois Roche)

GELLERMAN: Virgin Atlantic has been pioneering use of bio-fuels, and I was just reading that British Airways and Airbus, the airplane manufacturer, have been developing a system to grow algae in their airports in these vast vats, and they expect that within four years to be flying their airplanes on algae- pond scum!

BURT: Yes, it’s exciting! And it sounds sort of somewhat out there, using pond scum as a fuel, but algae-based fuels have a lot of promise for an alternative fuel source to fossil fuels that can be used in aviation, as fuels for other things as well, like cars and ships. So, it seems like a promising technology.

GELLERMAN: At the end of November, I’m actually going to be flying to Mexico to go to the international UN climate conference, and I’m wondering, um, should I feel guilty about flying there?

BURT: I’m not sure guilt is particularly useful, but I think that you should certainly be aware of what the impact of those actions are. Not that we should never jump in a plane, but we should encourage measures to reduce the impact of those choices that we make.

GELLERMAN: Well Ms. Burt, thank you very much.

BURT: Thank you.

GELLERMAN: Sarah Burt is an attorney with the law firm EarthJustice.



The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)

Earth Justice


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