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Aviation Industry Set to Triple Its Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2050

Climate

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).

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. Photo credit: Giorgio Montersino via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Falling Behind

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.

Limited Reductions

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.

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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.

No Hurry

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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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.

We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

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"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

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