Does the Aircraft Emissions Standard Fall Short?


by | Feb 12, 2016

airplaneThe first-ever global emissions standard for commercial aircraft — years in the making — moved closer to takeoff this week as the United Nation’s aviation body proposed carbon pollution limits for airplanes.

The International Civil Aviation Organization did not release details of its proposal. But that hasn’t stopped the aviation industry from praising the carbon rule or environmental groups from criticizing it as ineffective.

The UN agency did say the emissions standard would only apply to new aircraft models as of 2020. It would also apply to new deliveries of existing models from 2023 and have a cut-off date of 2028 for production of aircraft that do not comply with the new emissions standard. The ICAO’s governing body is expected to approve the proposal later this year.

In the absence of specifics, however, it remains a question as to who effective the standard will be in reducing airplanes’ carbon emissions remains open to debate.

Projected Emissions Reductions

The White House says the standards are expected to reduce carbon emissions more than 650 million tons between 2020 and 2040.

The nonprofit International Council on Clean Transportation, on the other hand, said while the standard represents a “historic milestone” by establishing the first binding carbon reduction targets for the aviation industry, “in terms of effective, real-world reductions in carbon emissions from aircraft it falls short.”

ICCT executive director Drew Kodjak, in a statement, said “the proposal will only require CO2 reductions from new aircraft of 4 percent over 12 years, when market forces alone are predicted to achieve more than a 10 percent efficiency gain in the same time frame. This is an anti-backsliding standard.”

Vera Pardee, a Center for Biological Diversity attorney who has sued the federal government over aviation emissions, said the standard would not actually reduce aviation’s overall emissions because of the industry’s projected growth. “These disturbingly weak recommendations put the Obama administration under enormous pressure to fight airplane pollution’s threat to our climate,” Pardee said. “The EPA has a legal and moral obligation to address the aviation industry’s skyrocketing carbon pollution.”

The EPA last year said greenhouse gas emissions generated by commercial aircraft contribute to global warming and endanger human health, a declaration that lays the groundwork for regulating domestic aircraft emissions.

Boeing, Airbus on Board

Boeing and Airbus, which both said they welcomed the emissions standard, say their latest models already exceed the emissions requirements. “The 787 Dreamliner family reduces fuel use and CO2 emissions by 20 percent to 25 percent compared to airplanes it replaces,” Boeing said in a statement. “The new 737 MAX, with first delivery expected in 2017, will reduce fuel use and emissions by 20 percent compared to the original Next-Generation 737. The 777X, with first delivery expected in 2020, will be the world’s largest and most fuel-efficient twin-engine jet.”

Yuan-Sheng Yu, Lux Research’s lead analyst on the alternative fuels team, says each new model by Boeing and Airbus is, on average, 12 percent to 20 percent more efficient than the one it replaces. So the companies’ emissions reductions claims make sense.

“This has come from lightweight materials for cabin equipment and seats, retrofitting winglets for better aerodynamics, adoption of a continuous descent and climb flights, and even the replacing of pilot manuals with tablets,” Yu explains. “Additionally, the rapid expansion of big data analysis has also played a factor as optimized flight paths are calculated taking into consideration of best weather conditions and improved air traffic management.

Role of Biojet Fuels

“What the industry is missing though is the adoption of alternative fuels, the only solution that ICAO sees as a possibility of potentially reaching its targeted 50 percent CO2 reduction by 2050,” Yu says, adding there are various fuel pathways and companies moving forward in this market.

Yu says the most prevalent biojet fuel on the market now comes from Neste’s and UOP/Eni’s technology, which produces biofuel from inedible corn oil and used cooking oil. The companies say this biofuel will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 185 metric tons of CO2 over the course of the event based on life cycle analysis.

Another technology platform gaining momentum is Fischer-Tropsch (FT), which converts synthetic gas to synthetic crude to be refined into biojet fuel. “Companies developing FT processes for biojet fuel, such as Red Rock Biofuels and Fulcrum BioEnergy, made the headlines numerous times leading up to 2016 by signing major deals with commercial airlines,” Yu says.

Last year United Airlines announced a $30 million equity investment in Fulcrum BioEnergy.

“Either airlines start acting now and investing in a biojet fuel supply chain or face the potential fines that may be imposed as the emission standards move forward and continue to increase,” Yu says.

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