Live from COP 26: A Spotlight on U.S. Aviation Decarbonization

If we’re going to significantly mitigate the climate crisis, we know we need to decarbonize all sectors of our economy, and luckily, we have solutions to reduce emissions from many of the largest emitters. Renewable energy like wind and solar can meet our country’s electricity demand, and high-speed public transit and electric vehicles provide promising alternatives to gas-powered vehicles. Now, it’s all about passing policies to scale the deployment of these technologies. 

Some sectors are more difficult to abate, however, and aviation is at the top of the list. 

Planes can’t be electrified like buildings or cars — at least not right now. But, global aviation — including domestic and international passenger and freight flights — accounts for 1.9 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, which includes other planet-warming gases like methane, and 2.5 percent of carbon emissions. In the US, 11 percent of transportation-related emissions come from aviation. 

As emissions from the sector continue to grow, it begs the question: how do we decarbonize such a difficult-to-decarbonize sector? 

At COP26, I set out to learn more about what America was doing in this regard, attending roundtable discussions with both public and private sector leaders, press conferences, and negotiations. Here’s what I learned. 

America’s Aviation Climate Action Plan

Wednesday, November 10 was Transportation Day at COP. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg spent much of the day talking about aviation (and I spent most of the day following him around). 

First, Buttigieg announced America’s first-ever Aviation Climate Action Plan, which sets an ambitious decarbonization goal for the industry — net zero emissions from aviation by 2050. The plan delineates several priority areas for the government: 

  1. Increasing the production of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), a fuel that is nearly chemically identical to fossil-based jet fuel but, when produced following up-to-date emissions accounting standards, is made without using any fossil sources. Today, SAF makes up less than 0.01% of the global aviation fuel supply, but that figure will need to reach 10 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050 in order for the sector to decarbonize.
  2. Developing new more efficient aircraft and engine technologies. 
  3. Launching a series of airport decarbonization initiatives, such as the Zero Emission Vehicle program, which provides grants for airports to electrify their vehicles.
  4. Exploring electrification and potentially hydrogen as solutions for short-haul aviation.
  5. Continuing to play a leadership role in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).  
  6. Strengthening the ambition of the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) to ensure the “integrity and transparency of emission reductions.”

Executive Action to Advance Sustainable Fuels

The announcement of the U.S. Aviation Climate Action Plan was no surprise; the Biden administration had signalled its prioritization of aviation decarbonization when it announced an executive action to advance the future of sustainable fuels in American aviation. 

That action also detailed a number of notable initiatives, including: 

  1. The Sustainable Aviation Fuel Tax Credit, which is a part of the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better spending package that is currently awaiting passage in the US. (Members of Congress at COP26 have assured us that this bill will pass, but it’s not certain that this tax credit survives the cut). This tax credit provides $1.25 per gallon of SAF blended with traditional jet fuel, so long as it results in a 50 percent reduction in lifecycle GHG emissions. This will replace the existing tax incentives and help spur the production and usage of more SAF, while simultaneously cutting costs.
  2. The Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grant Challenge, a collaboration between the Department of Energy, Department of Transportation, and Department of Agriculture, to initiate a government-wide grant challenge focused on research and development for new SAF pathways. The ultimate goal of this challenge is to inspire a dramatic increase in the production of SAF, to at least 3 billion gallons by 2030 in the U.S. For context, only 2.4 million gallons of SAF were produced in 2019, whereas airlines burned 21.5 billion gallons of regular jet fuel that year. 
  3. A collaboration between the EPA and DOE to assess technical information needed to expedite the regulatory approval process to support newly developed technology to produce SAF. 
  4. A number of other provisions were also outlined, including federal grants for the Aviation Sustainability Center, the launch of the Sustainable Flight National Partnership, specific industry commitments, and efforts to improve air traffic and airport efficiency, among other provisions.

The International Aviation Climate Coalition

Buttigieg also announced the launch of a twenty-country International Aviation Climate Ambition Coalition, alongside several other transportation ministers. The coalition will regularly meet and work together to invest in SAF, zero-carbon technology, and support developing countries. Signatories include the U.S., Canada, France, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Turkey, United Kingdom, and others. 

“We need every tool at our disposal to cut emissions,” said Brad Schallert, the aviation lead at the World Wildlife Foundation, at the coalition launch. “That includes efficiency measures, operational measures, SAF, and reducing overall demand for aviation.”

Buttigieg called for “healthy global competition” in the pursuit of more SAF, and welcomed more states to join the coalition. 

So, what’s international action looked like to date? 

Aviation-sector emissions are regulated by the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). CORSIA, agreed to by 192 countries in 2016, is a market-based emission reduction scheme under which airlines have to purchase emission reduction offsets from other sectors in order to compensate for any increase in their own emissions. Airlines can also reach emission reduction targets by utilizing lower carbon fuels. Domestic flights are covered by the Paris Agreement in national emission-reduction pledges, but international flights are instead governed by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). 

Part of what makes CORSIA so weak is that it does not call on aviation emissions to decline — instead, it calls on them to stay the same. At the end of each three-year phase, participating airlines will be required to buy offsets from any emissions growth above 2020 levels for each of the previous three years. In the early years, the number of offsets each airline will need to purchase will depend on the entire global industry’s emissions growth from 2020. The requirement to offset emissions will be divided among airlines in proportion to the total carbon emissions of that company, instead of their growth. 

For the first six years of CORSIA, it is voluntary, and ICAO does not have the legal capacity to ensure full compliance. Countries won’t have to offset emissions until 2026, and even when they do, the price point is way too low, $1 per ton

Furthermore, ensuring the environmental integrity of offsets remains challenging — offsets must be additional, permanent, and correctly estimated, all things that have been difficult to ensure in the past, and we should not hedge our decarbonization bets on them in the future. 

America needs to do more

On Thursday, at a side event in COP26, I called on U.S. leaders to go much further in order to pave a path for the decarbonization of the aviation sector. I was joined by Gilles Dufrasne of Carbon Market Watch, and several other experts in the space, in criticizing CORSIA. 

“CORSIA is not going to be enough to address the climate impacts of aviation,” Dufrasne said. “CORSIA only addresses about 6 percent of aviation emissions — only the growth [from 2020 on], only international flights. This is a meaningless policy — I struggle to describe it as a climate policy.”

The program also only looks at carbon emissions, which is particularly problematic given that experts project that other GHG emissions from burning jet fuels increase the climate impacts of aviation by more than three times than carbon does alone. 

Aviation emissions have doubled since the mid-1980s, growing at a similar rate to total global carbon emissions. And by 2037, passenger numbers are projected to double to 8.2 billion. That means that aviation could consume a quarter of the global carbon budget for limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 C by 2050, according to an analysis published by Carbon Brief in 2016. So, we must do more than CORSIA, more than executive actions, and truly invest in the transformation of this industry.

I closed my speech with this sentiment, and I’ll finish the article with this as well: as the planet warms, and demand for flying grows, we need to step up our game and commitment to decarbonizing this sector. To truly be “All In”, as American officials have loved to tout at COP26, the U.S. must lead the way in decarbonizing this sector, and I’m calling on our leaders to not punt this issue down the road.

Featured Image: Noa Dalzell, Climate XChange, at COP26  in Glasgow. Photo courtesy UNFCCC.