Action 62. Try to make the friendly skies a bit friendlier to climate policy.

Cut to the chase: I kind of went down the rabbit hole on this one, getting all wrapped up in the fascinating world of aviation and carbon emissions. So if you want a shortcut, click here to mirror my action asking our airlines to step up and lead, not obstruct, good climate change policy and carbon emissions reduction goals.

Summer is around the corner and, like many  other folks, our thoughts are turning to vacation planning and how we will get to where we need to go. With our family in the intermountain west and us out on the west coast, flying is the only practical way for us to see them, and assuredly we’ll hop in our car for some camping along the way. And we’re certainly not alone in our wandering; the US Travel Association estimated that Americans took more than 2 billion trips of greater than 50 miles one way in 2012, with three out of four domestic trips taken for leisure purposes.

Of course, all that wandering has a cost, because we are often propelling ourselves towards these various destinations with the aid of fossil fuels. ALOT of fossil fuels. The US EPA estimates about a third of our total annual CO2 emissions in this country , about 1,750 million metric tons CO2 in 2011, are related to the transportation industry. We travel more by car than air: passenger cars and light trucks make up about 2/3 of our CO2 emissions in America, while commercial air travel comprises about 7% of our total CO2 emissions from the transportation sector and globally, airlines account for about 13% of transportation-related emissions. However, air travel is growing quickly as a component of the transportation sector: The world’s air passenger traffic more than doubled from 1985 to 2000 and air cargo traffic grew even more quickly. The number of US air travelers is expected to double to 1 billion over the next decade.

Air travel is an exceedingly energy-intensive way to travel; this website estimates that a small car creates about 5 metric tons of CO2 a year, while a single plane trip to London and back generates about 1.4 metric tons of CO2, or more than would be generated by 3 months of driving. And that isn’t including the NOx and other greenhouse gases generated by the plane.

So what is a concerned citizen to do? As with all our climate-related problems, the approach boils down to a two-pronged solution: the personal and the political. Personally, we need to modify our behaviors in the transportation arena, and I’ve talked a lot here  and lots of other people have talked about elsewhere the myriad of ways we can and should cut down on fossil fuel use. The other part of the personal equation is the realm of carbon offsets, where we admit we cant entirely kick the fossil fuel habit but we can offset it by purchasing credits to do good things to balance some of our impacts. While this is important, it’s a large and complicated subject that I’ll tackle down the road a bit here, when I get to my yet-to-do annual carbon offset action.

You won’t get disagreement from me if you’re a bit skeptical about relying on the collective good will of millions of citizens to change their travel patterns and buy offsets as a method of getting us where we need to be in GHG reductions. Market forces are necessary, and important, but not the entire solution, and they don’t work quickly enough to get us where we need to be in this critical window of GHG reduction-or-face-the-consequences. Nor would it necessarily be wise to try to back out of the airline industry that contributes 1.3 trillion dollars to our domestic economy. Nor is it entirely our responsibility as individual consumers to solve this problem. It is also the responsibility of the businesses that profit from the use of these fuels to step up to the plate and move us in a more sustainable direction. And that is where the political side of this equation lands us; we need to ask our government to enforce regulations, and incentives, that simultaneously recognizes the incredibly important role that transportation plays in our lives and in our economy, while pushing that sector towards a more sustainable way of functioning.

Politically, what is going on with airline regulation is pretty confusing. The EU has established an aviations emissions trading system which is a cap-and-trade program that establishes a total emissions limit for the aviation sector and allows the industry to trade emissions credits. In what Peter Barnes would call a major climate policy fail (see Action 57), the EU went right back to what it did with electricity generators, and gave away most of these credits for free, rather than auctioning them off; so, for now, airlines are making quite a profit off of this deal, to the tune of a 20 to 30 percent profit increase on covered flights.

Whether due to the failings of this system or, more likely because of a combination of other issues including a healthy transportation lobbying industry and American politicians’ reactive panic about the regulatory framework of cap-and-trade, we aren’t jumping on the bandwagon; Obama signed a law last year that actually prohibits US airlines from participating in this EU program. Frankly as much as I’d like to see some international solidarity of climate policies, I’m not particularly convinced the EU program is rigorous enough or has the right framework that we should be jumping on board anyway.

So what should we be doing? Under the Clean Air Act, the US could write its own regulatory framework for aviation emissions. Or, as the Center for American Progress has suggested, we could help draft a global market-based mechanism, that would not get us in the current quandary of countries opting out and compromising the strength of more regionally-based programs. All this, of course, is pretty hopeful political thinking given our current federal government’s poor climate with respect to addressing GHGs, pun intended.

But its pretty easy to know what we should not be doing: we should not be allowing the airline industry to use their lobbying muscle to undermine efforts to reduce our transportation industry’s slice of the GHG pie. Later this month, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) will be meeting in Montreal to discuss among other items a global aviation emissions plans. This is a fantastic opportunity to look at broad-based approaches to reducing the contribution of the aviation industry; but currently, the US is bringing some of the weakest positioning to the council; according to a WWF staff member:

“U.S. representatives to ICAO are pushing the weakest of policy options that would only cover the portions of flights within countries’ airspace and would delay implementation of pollution reductions,” said Keya Chatterjee, WWF climate and sustainability expert. “Not only does their current stance highlight the lack of U.S. commitment to a global solution, it also provides cover to other nations seeking to delay progress reducing emissions.”

So now is the time to put the pressure on our airlines to pressure us to come to the ICAO table leading, instead of undermining, climate change policy. Here’s a quick link to one such petition Sum of Us has set up in partnership with to petition the head of United Airlines to change their tune on climate change.

Finally, parting thoughts about the feasibility of making real changes in the aviation industry.  According to the US EPA,  CO2 from the domestic operation of commercial aircraft increased by 4 percent from 1990 to 2011, but what is interesting is the other aviation-related statistics: across ALL categories of aviation, CO2 emissions decreased by 20.8 percent between 1990 and 2011, which includes a 64 percent decrease in emissions from domestic military operations. There is  evidence that of all the branches of US government outside the EPA, the military is way out front when it comes to understanding that long-term overuse of fossil fuels is not a sustainable option and is leading to very serious, destabilizing consequences. Consequently, they’ve been incredible pioneers in looking at ways to shrink their carbon footprint, including making some of the biggest investments in alternative fuel and solar R&D, and in efficiency goals: e.g., the Air Force meeting its goal-3 years ahead of schedule- of reducing its fuel consumption by 12 percent since 2006. There is rightful criticism to be made of the fact that its easy to make progress when you are, as the Air Force is, the single largest consumer of jet fuel in the world. In addition, they are sadly exempt from the level of reporting and many other requirements of climate change policies that other federal agencies are required to provide, and this should change. But I do think these efforts showcase how substantive change and marked improvements in efficiency and investment in alternative energies are feasible at very large scales.


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