A global greenhouse gas standard for civil aviation moved one step closer to reality yesterday, greeted by some as "historic" and by others as an insufficient check on a growing source of climate-changing emissions.
The United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) draft rule would mandate an overall 4 percent reduction in cruise fuel consumption across the industry by 2028 compared with 2016 levels, according to an early analysis by the International Council on Clean Transportation.
All aircraft with modifications coming online in 2023 must comply with the standard. New designs that enter the market in approximately 2024 would be required to meet a slightly more stringent requirement.
Environmentalists blasted the proposed rule as nearly meaningless, arguing that it mandates annual emissions reductions over a 12-year trajectory that falls short of what the industry has done in the past simply in response to market factors like fuel costs. Meanwhile, aviation emissions are growing fast and are on track to triple by 2050 as global air traffic increases, they say.
"It's not rocket science," said Vera Pardee, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity. "You're not going to bend the rise in emissions growth at all."
The proposal has been in the works for six years. The White House yesterday embraced it as a natural follow-up to last year's landmark climate agreement in Paris. Officials noted that it is the first ICAO standard to apply to aircraft that are in production, not just "new starts." And they said it shows an "emerging global consensus" around the need to curb aviation emissions that should survive into the next administration.
Senior administration officials credited the United States with negotiating as stringent a standard as possible and noted that the consensus-based ICAO committee had recommended tougher reductions than some countries initially called for.
Airline industry offers praise
ICAO has a history of adopting its environment committee's standards without amendment, and it is likely that yesterday's rule, introduced at a meeting in Montreal, will be final when the full body meets in October.
ICAO officials said it would guarantee that future generations of aircraft meet a higher standard of performance.
"Our sector presently accounts for under two percent of the world's annual carbon dioxide emissions, but we also recognize that the projected doubling of global passengers and flights by 2030 must be managed responsibly and sustainably," said Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu, president of the ICAO Council, in a statement.
The U.S. industry greeted the ICAO recommendations as a complement to its own voluntary commitment to improve fuel efficiency by 1.5 percent annually through 2020 with carbon-neutral growth from 2020. Nancy Young, Airlines for America's vice president for environmental affairs, called them ambitious.
"We commend the work of the committee for its part in ensuring that ICAO continues to demonstrate leadership in setting environmental standards for global aviation," she said.
The ICAO rule, once it is final, will be binding on nations including the United States, which will be tasked with enforcing it. U.S. EPA paved the way for the rules last summer when it proposed an endangerment finding for aviation carbon dioxide emissions that will be finalized this summer. It also signaled its intent to regulate emissions, but environmental activists note that there is nothing to prevent countries from exceeding the ICAO standard.
And, they say, the Clean Air Act compels EPA to put in place regulations that are stringent enough to protect public health -- something the international standards are not set to be.
Lawsuits and carbon markets ahead?
Pardee said EPA should have laid the groundwork for those rules back in 2009, when the agency finalized its endangerment finding for CO2 from vehicles. Now that the U.N. body has signaled it won't adopt a stringent enough rule, the Obama administration should act within months to provide one of its own, she said.
"EPA has no choice but to act at this point," said Pardee, adding that CBD may sue to force the agency's hand.
Senior administration officials yesterday provided few details about EPA's path forward. But they emphasized that the proposal is one part of a two-pronged plan to rein in aviation emissions.
They pledged that the administration will now turn to negotiating a tough market-based mechanism later this year within ICAO that would require post-2020 emissions growth to be offset.
"The market-based measure is going to be a much broader approach to dealing with aviation emissions," said one official, though he said that program wouldn't play into EPA's decision about whether to craft a standard for the U.S. industry that is tougher than yesterday's performance standard.
Brad Schallert, who works on international climate issues for the World Wildlife Fund, said the standard is less effective than it could be because its phase-in deadline is too far out.
If the 2028 deadline for new and modified aircraft to comply were moved forward to an earlier date, it would increase the rule's emissions abatement by 7 percent for each additional year, he said.
"That's in some ways even more important than the stringency level itself," he said.
But while yesterday's standard came up short, it at least would allow U.S. negotiators to turn their attention to the market-based mechanism, which could have a broader impact, he said. And he noted that ICAO has pledged to do a technology review by 2019 that might lead to a tightening of the performance standard because it will show that more ambitious targets are achievable.