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US signs into law bill calling for global solution to aviation's carbon pollution

Jake Schmidt

Posted November 27, 2012 in Solving Global Warming

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Today, President Obama signed into law a bill that would send a signal that it is way past time for aviation to reduce its global warming pollution.  At the same time the White House signalled its commitment to securing a global solution to reduce aviation's carbon pollution. We echo the Obama administration in calling for an international solution, as that is the best way to address the growing problem of carbon pollution from international aviation. We are glad that the Administration is signaling its willingness to roll up its sleeves to get that done. While the new law changes nothing, it serves as a timely reminder that the international community must work together, and quickly, to address carbon pollution from aviation. 

The European Commission has recently proposed a one year “pause” in application of its law in light of international progress to secure global efforts to reduce carbon pollution from aviation. This move by the E.U. should take away the argument spouted by some countries that the E.U. law is getting in the way of securing a global approach to reduce aviation’s carbon pollution. Proponents of a global solution have until the next meeting of the International Civil Organization – next September through October – to agree on a real global approach to significantly reduce aviation’s growing contribution to global warming. No act of Congress can change that dynamic as this bill doesn’t force the U.S. Administration to implement any new action and provides them with no new legal powers (see here for how this bill has a lot of bark and little bite). Any action to implement this bill would lead to a taxpayer bailout of the airlines, a trade war with Europe, or undercut efforts to secure global action. That is a lose-lose proposition.

The only win-win solution is for the US and other countries to quickly develop and agree to implement concrete and enforceable actions to significantly reduce aviation’s growing carbon pollution. In fact this bill signals that such a strategy should be the focus of U.S. efforts. The bill mandates that the U.S. government conduct international negotiations “to pursue a worldwide approach to address aircraft emissions”. This requirement sends a clear signal that it is time for the world to secure a strong agreement to reduce aviation’s global warming pollution.

A recognition that the White House reaffirmed as President Obama signed the billl:

"The Administration remains focused on making progress in reducing aviation emissions through the appropriate multilateral forum – the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) -- and we welcome the recent progress there in establishing a new High Level Group charged with accelerating negotiations on a basket of measures that all countries can adopt at the next ICAO Assembly meeting in September 2013 to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from aviation."


The failure to reduce global warming pollution from aviation is no longer an option.  If it were a country, the aviation sector would be the world’s 7th largest source of global warming pollution. And its pollution is growing at a rate of 3-4 percent per year. Left unregulated aviation’s contribution to global warming is predicted to triple by mid-2030 and quadruple by 2050 (according to ICAO).US projected aviation fuel burn.PNG

And jet fuel use from U.S.-based carriers (and thus emissions) are projected to follow a similar growth trend according to FAA (see figure). As a result, U.S.-based carrier jet fuel use is projected to be 16 percent higher in 2020 than it is today and 42 percent higher in 2030.**

Airlines have the tools and technologies to significantly reduce their global warming pollution. And countries consistently claim they want a global solution to address aviation’s pollution.

If some countries stand in the way of a reasonable international solution, however, the EU will be fully justified in going forward, and NRDC will oppose any effort to obstruct that initiative.

The time for talk is over. 

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For more posts on this see:

* This post was updated 11/28/12 to include projections of U.S. jet fuel use.

** FAA forecasts state that this includes an assumed 1.5% improvement in the efficiency of U.S. commercial fleets.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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