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Aviation on the Cusp: From COVID-19 to the Climate Crisis

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By Annie Petsonk

This post was co-authored by Brad Schallert, World Wildlife Fund (WWF-US), and John Holler, WWF-US.

If you fly, you may know that flying is likely the largest part of your personal carbon footprint. What you may not know is that if aviation were its own country, it would be a top-ten carbon polluter. Plus, scientists now know that aircraft burning fuel in the upper atmosphere more than doubles the global warming impact of the carbon dioxide emissions alone– think of the heat-trapping contrails streaking across the sky that jets form high up in the atmosphere.

Aviation’s social license to operate depends on its ability to get on a flight path to net zero climate impact by 2050.

That’s a tall order, for two reasons.

First, the physics of aviation make it one of the hardest sectors in which to cut carbon – there are huge technological and economic barriers. The jets in service today are expensive, long-lived capital assets designed to fly on liquid fuel. While short-distance electric aircraft may take off in the next decade and a half, fully electric airplanes are unlikely to take over long-haul jet travel. Designing, testing, certifying and manufacturing more fuel-efficient jets and advanced non-fossil-based fuels is an urgent undertaking that will require not only significant dedication from the aviation industry, but also bold federal policy.

Second, the industry is focused on its own economic survival, not on the climate challenge. The pandemic has put tens of thousands of aviation jobs in jeopardy and walloped airlines and many of the businesses they serve. But if the Biden-Harris Administration doesn’t put dealing with the climate crisis at the core of aviation’s recovery, all the taxpayer funds spent on bailing out airlines won’t put the industry on a path to a sustainable future.

Aviation has reached an inflection point. Going back to the pre-COVID status quo is not a wise flightpath if the sector wants to be part of the solution to addressing the climate crisis. At the center of its recovery, it could, as President-elect Biden has urged, Build Back Better. The choice could not be starker.

That’s why the Biden-Harris Administration should start by establishing targets for the emissions of all US flights – domestic and international, passenger and cargo – that set our aviation sector on a path to net-zero emissions by 2050, with a waypoint of at least a 35% reduction from 2019 levels by 2035. Legislation would help, but existing statutes already give the relevant agencies broad authority:

  • The Clean Air Act gives EPA and FAA authority to set ambitious aircraft emissions standards, like reducing emissions fleetwide 2.5 percent per year, and setting tough limits on the emissions of conventional pollutants, which foul the air at airports and harm local communities.
  • The Clean Air Act could be used to establish aviation low-carbon fuel standards (LCFS), building on international standards already agreed to by the United States, and the Administration could work with Congress to craft incentives for producing better fuels.
  • Existing statutes require the Department of Transportation (DOT) and FAA to meet standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The agencies could use this authority to enforce the emissions cap already set by ICAO through its Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). Renewed U.S. leadership could press ICAO to tighten the CORSIA cap, adopt (at ICAO’s next Assembly, in 2022) an ambitious long-term emissions target for the industry, and require EPA to conduct scientific and technical reviews with notice and comment to determine when and how to strengthen the cap and trajectory.
  • The Administration could direct existing governmental R&D programs to focus sharply on cutting aviation’s climate impact and could channel the Federal Government’s formidable purchasing power toward this goal as well.
  • The agencies could reverse efforts to speed approval for supersonic aircraft which are both highly inefficient and inordinately expensive.
  • The agencies could reformulate existing policies that inadvertently encourage high emissions and discourage efficiency (e.g., “use or lose” rules for slot-constrained airports resulting in “ghost flights” being flown simply to maintain a competitive hold on slots; and policies that bar different carriers from consolidating nearly empty flights).

Aviation wants a new government bailout. That should only be provided if the industry accepts mandatory emissions limits and focuses the funding on putting people to work meeting those targets. That means support not only for people flying the planes and serving the customers, but also for people retrofitting the aircraft to boost efficiency and enable planes to use the fuels of the future. That means putting people to work growing sustainable biofuels and building the large-scale renewable electricity generation and infrastructure needed to produce truly zero-carbon electro- and hydrogen-based aviation fuels. It means directing research dollars toward electric aircraft and entirely new aircraft designs. It means putting people to work building the new zero-emitting aircraft of the future (and ditching programs that waste money on super-polluting, super-noisy supersonic aircraft).

Yes, it’s a tall order. But if aviation is to rebuild from COVID in a time of climate crisis, this must be its flight path.

This post originally appeared in usinternationalclimateagenda.org/blog.

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