Airline industry eyes emissions standards

A group of foreign airlines will propose a plan today to curb the aviation industry's emissions, hoping to help negotiators reach agreement on one of many friction points in global climate change talks.

The plan suggests a cap-and-trade scheme for the airline sector, requiring airlines from all countries to have permits that cover their emissions.

As in other cap-and-trade policies, airlines that have excess credits could sell them to others. Airlines would also be allowed to buy credits from international carbon markets, such as the European Union's Emission Trading Scheme.

Damian Ryan, a senior analyst at British nonprofit the Climate Group, said the partners think their plan can break through the impasse between rich and poor countries that has often run climate talks aground.

"It's one of the few industry-driven proposals," Ryan said. "You don't often see a bunch of companies coming together and putting together such quite detailed proposals."


A group of major international carriers, including Virgin Atlantic and Air France, joined the Climate Group in the proposal. Under three possible scenarios, the industry would have until 2020 to match its 2005 emissions, reduce them by 5 percent, or reduce them by 20 percent.

Breaking the pattern

Airline emissions account for 2 percent of heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But with air travel predicted to increase, reducing greenhouse gas output from airlines has become a central policy focus in the international negotiations for a post-Kyoto treaty.

So far, Ryan said, climate talks on aviation have followed a familiar pattern: Airlines from developing countries say the rich countries have caused the most emissions, so they should have to pay for reductions.

At the same time, airlines from the wealthier countries don't want to face carbon costs if their competitors don't have to.

To address the issue, the proposal from the airline group, which calls itself the "Aviation Global Deal," would auction some of its carbon permits. The cash would be funneled to an international climate treaty -- assuming there is one -- for projects to reduce emissions in developing countries.

Many of the other details haven't been hammered out yet, which means climate negotiators will still have wrangling to do. The proposal doesn't say what body would handle the emissions auction, and it doesn't specify what percentage of credits will be auctioned. Nor does it say exactly how many credits each airline would get.

And although the Global Deal group includes Cathay Pacific, a Hong Kong-based airline, Ryan said the Global Deal hasn't yet received input from airlines in other developing countries.

Nevertheless, the approach has some support in the industry.

U.S. airlines say regulations unnecessary

Meanwhile, the director of the International Air Transport Association, the main association representing airlines, announced a commitment yesterday to cap aviation emissions by 2020.

It's a bold statement in light of the economic storm that has battered the industry in recent years. IATA Director-General Giovanni Bisignani's announcement came on the same day that IATA raised its forecast for industry losses this year from $4.7 billion to $9 billion.

The aviation industry says it is working on technologies to reduce its carbon footprint, but it is still awaiting a breakthrough. Engine makers have been working on biofuels for jets, but only a few trials have occurred. Getting new fuels approved is a slow process, since regulators want to make sure that planes will fly safely.

In the United States, the outdated air traffic control system -- which keeps planes idling on the tarmac and sends airborne jets on zigzag routes -- hasn't been replaced. Washington's effort to convert to a satellite-based system has stalled, partly because of cost.

Experts think many of these technologies can catch fire in the industry, but not without significant time and money, the Government Accountability Office said in a report yesterday.

In the meantime, airlines have continued to trim in search of smaller efficiency gains, charging for baggage and adding fins to the ends of airplanes' wings, for example.

The Air Transport Association, which represents U.S. airlines, said its members have made efficiency leaps this way for decades, and that it can become climate-friendly without regulation.

'We've sort of already paid'

Nancy Young, the group's vice president for environment, called the industry "extremely greenhouse gas-efficient," claiming that the industry improved fuel economy 110 percent between 1987 and 2007. Left alone, she said, the industry wants to improve fuel efficiency another 30 percent by 2025.

But if there must be regulation, she said, ATA would prefer a sectoral agreement like the Aviation Global Deal's.

"Our planes do not know geographical boundaries, and so you really need to set an international framework," she said.

The problem with the Global Deal's pitch, she said, is that it takes money from the super-efficient aviation industry and gives it to energy-inefficient industries in the poor countries.

Young said she understands that it is cheaper to cut emissions in these countries than in aviation, where there have already been decades of improvements. But she said U.S. airlines will be skittish about reducing fuel use unless they can get the auction revenue and put it toward new technologies.

"Our low-hanging fruit has long been taken care of," she said. "Our position is, we've sort of already paid, and we don't really want to pay another industry to do what they could have done."

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