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Aviation Industry Set to Triple Its Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2050
If commercial aviation were a country, it would rank seventh in global greenhouse gas emissions according to a recent report by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).
The aviation industry is growing so quickly that its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are expected on present trends to triple globally by 2050. The industry itself is committed to reducing its emissions, but technological and political constraints are hindering rapid progress.
Technologically, the fate of aviation GHGs depends on how much more fuel-efficient airplanes can become, and how soon lower-carbon fuels can be made available at a palatable cost.
Politically, it depends on whether the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) can establish agreement among member states on a regulatory mechanism, which in turn may depend largely on whether—and when—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chooses to regulate aviation emissions.
A final unknown is whether the sector’s efforts can produce results in time to avoid climate catastrophe.
By 2050, the aviation industry aims to halve its CO2 emissions compared with 2005 levels, says Steve Csonka, executive director of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, a U.S. public-private partnership.
The group is exploring “biomass-derived synthetic jet fuel,” which includes oils from plants and algae, crop and forest product residues, fermented sugars and municipal solid waste.
While this type of fuel can, in principle, be used in jet engines today, Csonka says the most important goal in the near term is to develop alternatives to petroleum-based fuel “at a reasonable price point.” A few airlines are buying alternative fuels at a higher price to encourage the market, Csonka adds, but widespread adoption awaits competitive pricing.
Aviation fuel efficiency has been increasing, but it is not keeping pace with the sector’s growth. The ICCT report finds there was no improvement between 2012 and 2013, and that the gap between the most and least efficient airlines widened—with American Airlines burning 27 percent more fuel than Alaska Airlines for the same level of service.
This gap suggests the industry could reduce GHG emissions significantly if the least efficient airlines would emulate the most efficient, says Daniel Rutherford, the ICCT’s programme director for aviation and a co-author of its report. Most of the reductions so far have come from carrying more passengers per flight, replacing old engines and buying new, more efficient planes.
Like most businesses, airlines don’t want to replace equipment until it makes economic sense. Nor does the industry want to be pinned to standards like those in the U.S. auto industry, which would force “airplanes to improve to a certain degree every year or x number of years.” Csonka says.
Such standards “completely overlook the capital ramifications” for the airlines, he adds, and companies’ profitability is a major factor in the pace at which they can replace old equipment. But the ICCT report suggests that airlines that have spent the most on new, efficient planes are also the most profitable.
Airplanes are at a disadvantage compared with vehicles and power stations. At present there are no low-carbon or no-carbon technologies—such as solar, fuel cells, nuclear reactors, electricity or hydrogen combustion—that will work for aviation. Nor are there market-ready radically different airframe or engine designs.
Fuels derived from plants such as switchgrass, corn and algae can be used in existing engines, but to provide the same energy they need to be “essentially identical” to petroleum-derived kerosene, Csonka says. And if their hydrocarbon structure is the same, burning them will emit the same GHGs.
The advantage of synthetics, Csonka adds, is that “we are pulling recycled carbon out of the biosphere and not out of the ground,” which reduces the net carbon footprint—provided the fuels’ production does not generate too many GHGs itself.
For the foreseeable future, this is the best that can be expected from alternative fuels. This means there is a limit on how much aviation’s net GHG emissions can be reduced, even with alternative fuels, as long as the commercial airline fleet changes only incrementally and no major technological breakthroughs reach the market.
However, there are new engines, materials and aircraft designs now available that can make a big difference, Rutherford says: “We project that the fuel burn for new aircraft can be reduced by as much as 45 percent in 2030 through pretty aggressive technology and development, better engines, improved aerodynamics and lighter materials.”
Campaigners would like to see regulation obliging the industry to increase efficiency by improving faster.
Aviation needs a global policy and enforcement structure; all major airlines’ aircraft emit GHGs globally. This problem brought the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) to its knees in 2014.
The ETS, which came into effect in 2012, charges airlines for their emissions in European Economic Area airspace. When non-EU airlines protested, the European Commission temporarily exempted flights to or from non-EU airports but still charged for emissions within EU airspace.
Washington, one of the most energetic lobbyists against the charges, forbade its airlines by law from paying the EU fees. The U.S. also threatened trade sanctions, and China suspended its orders from European airplane manufacturer Airbus. There is now a moratorium on extra-EU carbon charges, pending the results of the next ICAO meeting in 2016.
But despite the EU’s surrender to foreign pressure, many observers think the dispute has increased pressure on the ICAO to devise a meaningful emissions reduction programme.
The ICAO’s actions are expected to be closely co-ordinated with those of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Within the U.S., GHGs are regulated by the EPA under the Clean Air Act, which requires action if an air pollutant is found to endanger the public. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that GHGs are pollutants.
Several U.S. environmental NGOs say the EPA is dragging its feet on deciding “whether emissions cause or contribute to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare”.
It has refused repeated requests for an interview with an expert source and says it does not see the need for an interview. The agency expects to issue any regulations in 2016—presumably in time for the ICAO meeting.
But there is no doubt that the EPA will have to produce an endangerment finding and eventually issue a regulation, says Vera Pardee, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity who worked on the NGOs’ notice to the EPA.
Politics Versus Science?
In 2013 the ICAO committed to what the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions calls “an aspirational mid-term goal of zero carbon emissions growth for the aviation industry beginning in 2020.” In addition, Csonka says, the aviation industry has accepted the notion of “a market-based mechanism to offset if we miss that goal in an international environment. Our industry will have carbon monetised from 2020 onward to some degree.”
Yet time is vital, and there is a risk that action taken by governments and industry may be politically feasible but scientifically ineffectual. There is no guarantee that the 2016 ICAO meeting will result in binding obligations.
In the meantime, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change currently aims at a 40 percent - 70 percent drop in total global GHG emissions by 2050 to avoid a greater than 2˚C rise in global temperature. In January 2013, climate scientist Thomas Stocker warned in the journal Science that delayed action results in the “fast and irreversible shrinking, and eventual disappearance, of the mitigation options with every year of increasing greenhouse gas emissions.”
But the next two years are likely to see a firming up of the aviation industry’s commitment to GHG reductions and some sort of international mechanism to charge for emissions.
There are signs that industry experts and green advocates are cautiously optimistic. “I see the EPA’s domestic regulation of the airlines as a real catalyst for global action,” says Pardee. “If the EPA acts, the rest of the world will have to follow.” And Csonka adds: “The future is somewhat bright.”
Valerie Brown, based in Oregon, U.S., is a freelance science writer focusing on climate change and environmental health. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and Society of Environmental Journalists.
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Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
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A warm day in winter used to be a rare and uplifting relief.
Now such days are routine reminders of climate change – all the more foreboding when they coincide with news stories about unprecedented wildfires, record-breaking "rain bombs," or the accelerated melting of polar ice sheets.
Where, then, can one turn for hope in these dark months of the year?