Airplane Pollution Jeopardizes Paris Climate Goals

02 December 2015 | Center for Biological Diversity News Release

PARIS— Airplanes could generate 43 gigatonnes of planet-warming pollution through 2050, consuming almost 5 percent of the world’s remaining carbon budget, according to a new Center for Biological Diversity report.

Yet the Center’s analysis also finds that negotiators at the Paris climate conference are considering a draft agreement that, in its current form, is unlikely to create measurable effects on aviation pollution. (A Paris panel will address this issue Dec 3: details here.)

“A Paris climate deal that doesn’t address airplane pollution would represent a drastic failure to protect our planet,” said Vera Pardee, senior counsel at the Center. “The aviation pollution problem is too big and growing too quickly to be ignored. U.S. negotiators must back strong action in Paris to confront this jet-powered threat to our climate.”

The Center’s report finds that global greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft are a surprisingly large and fast-growing contributor to the climate crisis. If global aircraft emissions were compared to the greenhouse gas pollution of individual countries, they would rank seventh, just behind Germany and ahead of some 150 other countries.

U.S. airplanes have released 1.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide since 2007, when the Center and others first petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to begin regulating aviation emissions. That’s equivalent to the CO2 emissions in 2014 from the entire U.S. electricity generation sector attributed to burning coal.

Without regulation, the Center’s report says, global aviation emissions will triple by mid-century. In 2050 aviation alone could emit more than 3 gigatonnes of carbon annually under a high-growth, business-as-usual scenario. By comparison Germany, the sixth-largest emission source by country, currently emits 0.84 gigatonnes per year.

Paris negotiators hope to produce an agreement that will help keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. But language folding aviation emissions into this goal was recently deleted from the Paris negotiating text and replaced by vague text that makes no mention of a temperature cap.

The International Energy Agency projects that the world’s estimated remaining carbon budget, consistent with a 50 percent chance of keeping temperature rises below 2 degrees Celsius, will be consumed by 2040 without aggressive international carbon emission cuts.

Airplane pollution could be reduced dramatically. A recent International Council on Clean Transportation report showed that some of the top 20 transatlantic air carriers can drive down greenhouse emissions by as much as 51 percent using existing technology and operational improvements.

But the aviation industry has fought measures to curb its carbon pollution for nearly two decades. It now supports standards under discussion by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) that would cover just 5 percent of the existing airplane fleet by 2030 and barely bend the curve of the industry’s steeply rising greenhouse gas pollution.

The U.S. EPA issued a proposed rulemaking earlier this year finding that greenhouse gas pollution from America’s aircraft fleet harms the climate and endangers human health and welfare. Once the “endangerment finding” becomes final, U.S. law mandates that standards be set. The standards now under discussion at ICAO do not meet U.S. legal requirements.

“The Obama administration’s climate legacy is at stake on the issue of aircraft emissions,” Pardee said. “Airlines’ denial and delay must not stop America and the international community from reining in the aviation industry’s skyrocketing pollution.”

Contacts: Patrick Sullivan, , psullivan@biologicaldiversity.org
Kassie Siegel (in Paris), , ksiegel@biologicaldiversity.org

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