It is for good reason that Greta Thunberg’s much-publicized efforts to avoid travel by air have made headlines. She has put the spotlight on the climate impacts associated with air travel. Emissions in the transportation sector are significant and aircraft are particularly carbon-intensive. It is clear that current international standards are inadequate. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards fall far short of meeting the objectives laid out in the Paris Climate agreement (ie keeping temperatures below the upper threshold limit of 1.5 – 2 degrees C).
Aircraft are the third-largest contributor to transportation-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S. The Bureau of Transportation reports that U.S. jet fuel consumption in the airline industry has increased to almost 20 billion gallons annually since the 80s. While currently at roughly three percent of the U.S. emissions, this number is growing.
Airline emissions were an important issue for the Obama administration. In 2016 after years of deliberations and lawsuits, the EPA issued a final endangerment finding for airline emissions, legally requiring the agency to move forward with regulation. More than three years ago Janet McCabe, the EPA’s Acting Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation made it clear that reducing airplane emissions is an essential part of climate action. She correctly anticipated an increase in air travel and indicated that action is required to curb emissions. “Addressing pollution from aircraft is an important element of U.S. efforts to address climate change,” McCabe said.
A Virgin Airline study showed we can make air travel more efficient and decrease fossil fuel use by as much as 30 percent. However, this is nowhere near enough. What we need is decarbonization through electrification but when it comes to aircraft this is no easy feat.