Past attempts to find a global way of dealing with aviation's carbon emissions have fallen short, most recently with European countries like the UK trying to impose a carbon regulation but lacking international support, particularly from across the pond. So today's announcement by the American Environmental Protection Agency that carbon dioxide emissions from aircraft are a danger to the health of the public could mark a turning point. It is not surprising (the agency had already ruled that greenhouse gas emissions present a risk to US citizens) but given the aviation sector is increasingly culpable when it comes to climate change, the consequences of the ruling could be monumental.
Aviation accounts for around 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, roughly equivalent to Germany's total output (which is the country with the seventh highest emissions in the World) . While most sectors are expected to cut their emissions, aviation is expected to grow its carbon footprint, with it potentially tripling by 2050.
The challenge for aviation, being an international activity by nature, is finding leadership to tackle its emissions. The European Union tried by including aviation in the European emissions scheme but strong political and industry pressure led to the scheme's coverage being cut by two thirds.
Now the US environment agency's finding paves the way for a different approach, most likely initially a performance standard for aircraft CO2 emissions. One of aviation's unique privileges is that it is the only transport sector without a standard for CO2 emissions anywhere in the world and yet it urgently needs some kind of measure to push future efficiency improvements. Today's airline fleet is undoubtedly much more efficient than it was back in the early 1970s but efficiency improvements have slowed down dramatically since 2000 at a time when the global number of airline passengers is growing at around 5.5% per year.
The UN aviation body (ICAO) is already working on a CO2 emissions standard, which could make things easy for the US (it is likely just to include a global standard in its national legislation) and keep the industry satisfied. However, the standard being developed globally may not be fit for purpose - there's a risk that it will not drive the improvements needed and ultimately have little to no impact on CO2 emissions. It could also only apply to new types of aircraft (rather than the types that have only just hit service such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner), meaning it may only cover a small fraction of the fleet in 2030, hardly an example of the ambitious climate policies required to globally meet the 2°C target.
Here is where the UK could help. With the EU and, this time, the support of the US, we could push for an effective global standard. It would make cutting emissions in our own countries easier, help reduce our dependence on imported fossil fuels, and could be a useful step towards a globally coordinated approach to bringing aviation in line with wider climate commitments. Tackling aviation emissions will require a whole range of measures beyond efficiency measures including offsetting future emissions and a very cautious approach to new airport capacity.
The UK is currently considering a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick. But any hope that this could be compatible with our climate goals depends on speculative assumptions about future action to tackle the sector's CO2 emissions. An effective aircraft standard could be one part of the solution.
The global aviation sector needs to start playing catch up with other transport modes on measures to tackle emissions and the UK and EU are well placed to maintain their leadership on the issue, especially now the US is on board.