The Responsibility to Regulate the Emissions of Our Airlines

by JP Kiefer

The governing body responsible for regulating greenhouse gas emissions in aircraft, the International Civil Aviation Organization, has not passed any significant greenhouse gas regulation over the past fourteen years despite the industry’s contributions to climate change. Liu (2011), recognizes that there may be some technical reasons the ICAO has chosen not to do so, but ultimately states that the ICAO would be the proper organization to implement regulation if not for political issues within its leadership.

The ICAO’s current policies regarding greenhouse gas emissions consist of improving fuel efficiency by two percent annually to 2050, capping greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation from 2020, and setting a global efficiency standard for aircraft engines in 2013. However, the two percent ICAO target “represents little above what is already happening,” and the target to cap aviation emissions from 2020 is “merely a non-binding, aspirational goal.” Furthermore, the ICAO disregards many factors contributing to the fuel efficiency of an aircraft, like weight, and focuses only on the engines of each plane.

The ICAO may choose not to regulate emissions due to the impact that constraining total emissions would have on the world. Reducing flying would affect individuals who must travel for business as well as harming international trade. This would especially impact the US and Japan, where about thirty percent of internationally traded merchandise is transported by air. Reducing the number of flights would also decrease job opportunities provided by airlines, airports, air manufacturers, and other related employers. Perhaps most significantly, the fuel efficiency of aircraft has steadily increased, with planes today seventy percent more fuel efficient than aircraft developed forty years ago. Despite this, the growth of the aviation industry has surpassed these technological improvements, and further steps need to be taken, according to Liu.

The ICAO has already set standards for environmental issues like aircraft noise, making it suitable to take a step towards establishing significant emission standards as well. Furthermore, the ICAO is one of the few organizations with enough scientific resources to implement policy effectively. It also is one of the few organizations with enough authority to regulate emissions without adversely affecting aircraft safety. The only problem with the ICAO’s ability to proceed is its management. New standards can be proposed only by bodies within the ICAO or other aviation-focused international organizations, with no room for environmental bodies to participate. These bodies within the ICAO are composed of 36 council members who represent the countries of most importance in air transport or who otherwise contribute significantly to the air transport industry. This not only leaves out any representation from countries that have little air travel but would be effected by climate change, but enables the council to avoid this environmental issue altogether. According to Liu, this shows that additional bodies need to join and pressure the ICAO in regulating greenhouse gas emissions in the future.

Liu, J., 2011. The Role of ICAO in Regulating the Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Aircraft. Carbon & Climate Law Review 4, 417-431

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