What You Need to Know: The Aviation Emissions Deal

The first global agreement to regulate CO2 emissions from the aviation industry was made on Thursday. The deal, which was reached in Montreal by national representatives at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), will make airlines offset their emissions for flights by buying credits through the carbon market, starting in 2021.

Although it is a step in the right direction, the deal was considered too weak according to scientists and environmentalists. Earlier this year, the ICAO had proposed much stronger measures, including carbon neutral aviation growth in the 2020s.Yet the proposal was abandoned at the time of negotiation, and replaced with the idea of offsets. There are not yet any clear regulations or standards on the offsetting that airlines will have to do.

Emissions from aviation worldwide are roughly the same as those produced by the whole of Germany. But they are also projected to grow immensely, contributing to approximately a quarter of the world’s remaining carbon budget by 2050.

Some airlines are looking to replace petroleum-based fuels with low-carbon biofuels as a way to reduce emissions. United and Alaska airlines are two airlines that are making the swap. It’s catching on, yet this option may be limited considering how many flights take off daily; biofuels alone may not be able to provide the supply needed for all these flights. Another option is more energy efficient airplanes, and a study in Nature Climate Change shows that airlines could cut emissions in half by the year 2050 in a cost-efficient way through new aircraft designs, fuel formulations, and flight patterns. ICAO has called for a 4% reduction in fuel consumption from new commercial aircraft built after 2028, but this could be scaled up. In addition, the EPA’s ruling in July 2016 that jet engine exhaust endangers public health by contributing to climate change may provide a way for stricter regulation on aviation emissions in the United States.

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