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Climate Agreement Says Airlines Must Reduce Emissions — Just Not Very Much

Boeing calls the deal ambitious — but environmentalists say the new rules amount to greenwashing because they don't force airlines to do more than they are already doing.

by Jake Bleiberg
Feb 9 2016, 11:00pm

Aviones en el aeropuerto internacional de Suvarnabhumi en Bangkok, Tailandia, el 27 de enero de 2016. (Imagen por Barbara Walton/EPA)

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The first global regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation sector are being decried by prominent climate scientists and green groups as serving industry ahead of the environment.

On Monday, the aviation agency of the United Nations announced a set of emission-reduction standards for airplanes. The result of six years of negotiations, the agreement is being heralded by plane manufacturers and the White House, which say that they will significantly cut back on the emissions that are driving global climate change. 

But skeptics say the deal "greenwashes" a major polluter and suggest that the emissions standards do not push industry to make greater cuts than what they would already achieve.

"This is a trick that governments sometimes use when they want to appear to be doing something but are not actually doing very much," said Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer. "If you put it all together, it suggests that the aviation industry had too much influence on the outcome."

'Do not be fooled. This is an industry protection standard and it does not get us the carbon emissions we need.'

Air travel accounts for between 2 and 3 percent of annual carbon dioxide emissions globally, placing the aviation sector on par with Germany and ahead of the United Kingdom. And market analysis by manufacturing giants like Boeing and Airbus forecast more planes flying overhead as international travel increases in the coming decades.

The standards were announced in Montreal by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and will require planes brought into service after 2028 to reduce fuel consumption by 4 percent on average compared to 2015 levels. Specific reductions will vary between zero and 11 percent depending on the type and size of plane. The transition to these requirements is set to begin in 2023, pending adoption by the 36 nations party to the deal. 

The White House said the new standards will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 650 million tons between 2020 and 2040, which it equated to removing over 140 million cars from the road for a year.

Washington-based aviation giant Boeing said the deal "represents real progress" and called the new standards "ambitious," even while stating that "our new commercial airplanes have been designed to meet and even exceed challenging emission requirements."

And that's why environmentalists and engineers have flagged the deal as a failure. 

Related: The Obama Administration Wants to Clean Up the Airline Industry

Analysis from the International Council On Clean Transportation (ICCT) found that fuel efficiency for new commercial aircraft increased an average 1.3 percent every year between 1968 and 2014. Market forces alone are projected to create much greater efficiency gains than the 4 percent required by the new deal, ICCT aviation director Dan Rutherford said.

"The standard, as we know it, doesn't require any additional effort on the part of manufacturers or airlines to reduce emissions, so I can't say it's in the broad environmental interest," said Rutherford.

While the new regulations do call for an absolute reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and may serve to prevent industry back slide, critics claim they fail to accelerate the pace of emission reduction.

Last year, the Obama administration issued a ruling recognizing plane emissions as a driver of climate change and a threat to human health. That's makes some environmental advocates optimistic that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) might set standards stricter than those proposed by the UN body.

"They understand that they have a duty under US domestic law to actually come up with meaningful standards that will reduce emissions, rather than these business-as-usual standards," said Vera Pardee, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which brought won a lawsuit that compelled the EPA to set domestic standards to reduce airline emissions.

Airlines have long advocated against regional standards, and pressure from industry helped block a 2012 regulatory framework proposed by the European Union. In the United States, the world's largest air travel market, the EPA has not indicated whether it will exceed the new international standards. Pardee warned of the lobbying power of Boeing and Airbus, which together make up 90 percent of the airplane market.

"Do not be fooled. This is an industry protection standard and it does not get us the carbon emissions we need," she said. "It is unfortunate and regrettable greenwashing."

Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg