The global battle over aviation emissions

As we explored the British movements around aviation and climate change, we were struck by the critical role played by data and policy work. Behind every slogan, every flyer, every policy idea was the work of dedicated aviation policy researchers, working to counter industry spin. The nerve center of British aviation/climate research is a group called the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF), a remarkable group simultaneously able to work at the UN level, while continuing to support neighbors disturbed by airport noise. We sat down with AEF Director Tim Johnson about his work.

Playing the global game

Johnson explained to us some of the dynamics around regulating aviation emissions at the international level. While aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gases, neither the Kyoto Protocol nor subsequent agreements like the Copenhagen Accord address it. Right now, the ball's been thrown into the court of the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO), the UN agency managing the sector. The ICAO's working to have policy on aviation and climate change ready for its 37th triennial Assembly, which runs September 28 to October 10. According to the AEF, this "may include targets for emissions reductions, measures to achieve these cuts, and protections for developing countries."

There's a tremendous amount of jostling going on over the fall ICAO resolution. On one side are international environmental NGOs, organized as the International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation (ICSA). On the other side is the aviation industry, trying to get away with a 0% emissions reduction target for 2020. But it's 19 different national governments that call the shots. The European Union wants to build on its Emissions Trading System, while the Americans are closer to the industry position. Mexico, Japan, and Singapore lean toward the American position, and the EU may fall back to it as well. But, as Johnson tells us, "Brazil, China, India, and Saudi Arabia are some of the biggest stumbling blocks. They can't be influenced. What they're worried about is, if there had been an acceptable deal at COP15, that would be fine, but if they agree to a sectoral deal, then they may be pressured to agree to a larger deal." The AEF will be representing the environmental NGOs in the process, and we'll be looking forward to hearing their updates.

America, land of lawsuits and technology

We asked Tim Johnson about the situation in the U.S. As he shared stories, it felt like the American dialogue over aviation emissions is best captured by two lawsuits he described.

The first lawsuit was filed by the good guys. Several US NGOs recently sued the government, charging that the EPA hasn't been regulating aviation for greenhouse gases emissions as required by the Clean Air Act; the EPA welcomed the lawsuit. There may be a bit of a turf war in progress: the industry-friendly FAA has primary regulatory authority over aviation environmental issues, which the EPA may want want more of a voice. Johnson is excited about the prospect of victory; if the lawsuit succeeds, and the EPA's right to regulate aviation emissions is upheld, "it would be the catalyst for an important debate."

The second lawsuit was filed against the European Union by United, Continental, and American airlines, and the Air Transport Association of America. The American airlines are fighting Europe's ability to tackle carbon emissions from foreign aircraft visiting Europe. The AEF joined the case on behalf of the European Union, along with American NGOs EDF, Earthjustice, and the Center for Biological Diversity, as well as European partners WWF-UK and Transport & Environment. While American environmental groups are worried that if the American airlines succeed in escaping European environmental regulations, it may hamper Americans' ability to impose environmental regulations on domestic and foreign airlines in their own airspace.

As Johnson describes it, American NGOs working on the aviation emissions issue tend to be more technology-focused, "not trying to get reductions, just cleaner, leaner aviation"; for example, he points us to the work of US-based groups like the International Council on Clean Transportation. And perhaps this is practical; if climate regulations are stalled in the U.S., better technology may indeed may play a part in the solution, he suggests. What the US does have, however, are local groups responding to airport noise issues; the N.O.I.S.E. network for example, is made up largely of city and government officials concerned about noise impacts, often working behind the scenes, inside the system.

Aviation taxes

An advisory group was set up after COP15, charged with exploring how to raise $100 billion in climate funding. Among the options are an international tax on aviation. Tim Johnson's been following the debate closely, and isn't keen on one leading idea, a small flat surcharge per ticket. He'd much rather see a per-flight tax, or one linked to fuel usage, to better approximate true environmental costs. Linking to fuel would work well, he tells us, because it's a simpler market-based system. Challenges remain. Should residents of small island states, for example, pay the same kinds of surcharges? While different carve-outs are being discusses, it's important to remember, he tells us, that 129 countries are collectively responsible for just 2.5% of aviation emissions.

The other side

We asked Tim Johnson and John Stewart (AirportWatch) about some of the industry lobbies they found themselves campaigning against. They mentioned industry public campaigns Flying Matters and Freedom to Fly, and trade associations IATA (Geneva), the US-based Air Transport Association (ATAG), which brings together a wide variety of players. John described how ATAG were "ferocious" lobbyists, so much so that they even had the time and resources to lobby Caroline Lucas, head of the British Green Party. "If they're lobbying even the Greens, you know they're working hard." As for specific companies, it wasn't only the airlines; companies like GE were quite strong as well.

Our favorite reports

If everything you knew about airports came from reading airport expansion proposals, you could be forgiven for thinking of them as the backbone of the British economy, a magical creator of jobs, stewards of the environment, and purveyor of all that is good and wholesome in the world. The folks at AirportWatch feel differently. As an organization made up of local airport watchdog groups, they come across the same kind of grandiose promises made over and over by airport operators. John Stewart from AirportWatch described to us how critical it was for anti-expansion campaigners to have their own research available, and pointed us to some of the research he found most useful during the Battle of Heathrow. Here are his recommendations, and some of our other favorites found on AEF's website:

  • "The Economics of Heathrow Expansion" (CE Delft, 2008)
    Absolutely decimates the analysis that the aviation industry used to make the case that expansion is good for the economy. Argues for fully internalizing aviation's environment costs.
  • "Airport Jobs: False Hopes, Cruel Hoax" (Brandon Sewill, Aviation Environment Federation, 2009)
    Shows how UK airports don't create jobs, but actually export them. Aviation employment dropped while air passengers rose 30%. The UK has a significant measurable tourism deficit, meaning more Britons take leisure trips abroad than foreigners taking leisure trips to the UK. Large subsidies for aviation are supposed to help the economy, but may accelerate the loss of 860,000 British jobs lost by 2030.
  • "Grounded: A New Approach to Evaluating Runway 3" (New Economics Foundation, 2010)
    A fascinating use of Social Return on Investment (SROI) analysis to evaluate the impacts of construction of a third runway at Heathrow. Uses the UK Department for Transport's own economic models, but updated with current carbon costs, and adding in valuations of community noise, air quality, and blight impacts. The result: instead of creating economic value, the project generates a net social cost of -£5 billion.
  • "Air Pollution from Airports Revealed by Volcanic Ash Cloud" (Environmental Research Group, King's College, 2010)
    Two London researchers measured air pollution levels at Heathrow and Gatwick airports at normal periods, and during the period when the Icelandic volcano shut down flights. Pollution levels near both airports literally dropped to zero.
  • "Excess Baggage: The Case for Reducing Government Flying" (WWF, 2010)
    Shows how the UK government could save over £300 million and about 60,000 tons of carbon over the next 3 years by banning 'unnecessary' business flights, 90% of which are domestic

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About us...

We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

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