Why aviation would gain from low carbon regulation

Sensemaking / Why aviation would gain from low carbon regulation

Companies and industry partnerships working to voluntary emission reduction targets would welcome wider regulation, says Roger East.

By Roger East / 17 Mar 2015

The aviation industry has much to gain from global governance to lower carbon emissions. Paradoxical as that might seem, this is the stance of such major players as TUI and plane makers Boeing. It could even make an unlikely hero of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

Until recently that seemed a pretty remote chance. Indeed, the only actual carbon control regime for planes – the EU’s emissions trading system (ETS), which is regional rather than global – was going backwards. ETS cap-and-trade provisions were applied to flights between EU airports at the start of 2012, but flights to non-EU destinations  had to be exempted, in the face of powerful protests from the US and China in particular. This exemption was only supposed to be temporary, but was then extended to 2016. Supposedly, at its next triennial congress, in September 2016, ICAO is aiming to agree a global market-based mechanism to control aviation emissions worldwide.

There had been widespread pessimism that such a plan would come to fruition, but recently the Americans, Chinese and other erstwhile opponents have been engaging much more positively in that process, says Eddie Redfern, TUI’s Head of Aviation Regulatory Affairs. Redfern is not sure whether this emerging consensus will extend to a monetary mechanism like the ETS. ICAO could settle for a weaker route, just requiring carbon offsets above some emissions ceiling, he says. In which case, would the EU keep its own rules, or give them up for the sake of a less ambitious, but global, ‘level playing field’?

Here, of course, is a key dilemma for global governance. Is it condemned to move at the speed of the slowest? Redfern does see even treatment worldwide as essential, together with common, transparent metrics for monitoring and reporting on emissions. But TUI knows that the business case for its investment in sustainability is best backed up by rules that enshrine ‘stretch’ targets.

The case for developing its emissions audit and verification procedures, for instance, was helped by the ‘push factor’ of ETS requirements. Going forward, TUI (and other companies seeking to meet or beat the voluntary industry target of a net 50% reduction in aviation emissions by 2050) would now really welcome wider regulations that vindicate their investments.

Key industry partnerships will depend on this too. A case in point for TUI is its long-standing relationship with Boeing. The two companies are now collaborating on the ecoDemonstrator initiative. This, explains Sean Newsum, who is Director, Environmental Strategy for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, puts real aircraft at the disposal of the company’s innovation teams, acting as “flying testbeds, to accelerate the development of technologies to sufficient readiness to be adopted for new plane programmes”.

It’s not cheap, but it can get innovations into actual service sooner. For instance, says Newsum, greater engine and airframe efficiency means each generation of new planes can do 15-20% better on fuel. Even the retrofitting of “gadgets” like the latest winglets can shave several percentage points off fuel consumption, says TUI’s Group Environment Manager James Whittingham. “It’s all about small marginal gains”, he adds, “and we want to continue to innovate, to drive the industry to adopt cutting edge technology”.

Alternative aviation fuels are another key area in the drive for greater sustainability, Boeing’s latest use of “green diesel” in an ecoDemonstrator flight suggests prospects for a major boost to supply, while the UK’s Sustainable Aviation coalition makes the case in their latest Road-Map that with proactive policy support from Government the UK aviation industry is capable of cutting CO2 emissions by 24% in 2050 through the use of sustainable fuels.  Whether that happens will surely depend quite heavily on the nature of the governance regime.

Roger East is freelance writer and editor specialising in the environment.

TUI Group is a Forum for the Future pioneer partner.   

Image Credit: JasonWoodhead23 / Flickr


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