Daniel Elwell, Assistant Administrator for Aviation Policy, Planning and Environment, FAA
The debate about how to deal with climate change is certainly “heating up”. This has been no less true for aviation. What to do about aviation greenhouse gas emissions dominated the discussions last year at the ICAO Assembly in Montreal. And just before Christmas, the EU continued down the internationally unpopular path of seeking to impose its emissions trading system on international aviation.
Let me offer some thoughts on how I believe we need to tackle this challenge. We have a disconnect growing between perception and performance on aviation emissions. Especially in Europe, there is a perception that aviation greenhouse gas emissions are growing out of control, that aviation is “the next tobacco industry” and needs to be reigned in by emissions caps and taxes. But the United States must trump perception with performance. We’ve been doing so for over four decades and we have no intention of stopping.
So where are we today in terms of performance? I will give you some observations on the kind of goals we need to think about, and what we’re doing to get there. But from the start, let me be clear, we don’t have all the answers at this point. What we have is a commitment that is at the very heart of the Next Generation Air Transportation System – a commitment to provide a systematic, well-informed and performance-based approach to tackling environmental issues.
Worldwide, aviation represents less than 3% of total GHG emissions. And in the U.S., how have we been doing? Well the good news is that when you compare today to 2000, U.S. commercial aviation is moving 12% more passengers and 22% more freight while burning less fuel, reducing our carbon output by a million tons. This is a much better performance than the U.S. economy overall.
Now let’s give these numbers some context. Consider the performance of the other major aviation market in the world: the European Union. Between 2000 and 2006, aviation emissions in the U.S. declined by about 4%. During the same period in Europe, emissions increased by around 30%!
The aviation industry has made and continues to make significant improvements in fuel efficiency. Aircraft fuel efficiency has improved 70% over the last 40 years and it is only getting better. On a per passenger mile basis, Boeing’s new 787 will be much more fuel efficient than today’s compact car.
All this efficiency without a single government imposed emission standard for aviation. That is because there is no better motivator for efficiency in this industry than the price of fuel – that goes for both manufacturers and operators. And with fuel now representing 25-30% of U.S. airline costs, the motivation has never been stronger.
The FAA is working alongside industry to improve the emission efficiency of air transport in the United States. Some efforts, like the introduction of Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum, have been very successful, saving about 3 million tons of CO2 annually. Other efforts, like the redesign of the Northeast airspace, are more difficult to put in place, but no less important to our overall goal of increasing capacity while minimizing emissions.
So, the good news is we are starting from a record of exceptional performance historically as we decide how to move forward. And what should we be seeking in terms of environmental goals? I do not have the answer today. Partly because much of our future success is dependent upon NextGen, and we won’t know its full benefits until NextGen is fully operational. That said, I think carbon neutral growth is something we need to examine. For instance, if U.S. aviation miles flown increase 4% then we need to find a combination of measures that provides a 4% improvement in fuel burn.
Records are not normally set by accident. They are broken under the midnight oil after hours of careful planning and study. So too will the record of zero emissions growth be set. We will need to work hard adhering to a careful plan. I believe there are five very critical prerequisites to this effort if we want to achieve this in a commercially viable manner.
First, we must improve our scientific understanding of the impacts of aviation emissions. While CO2’s impacts are understood, our comprehension of the impacts from other emissions – especially at altitude – ranges from fair to poor. We must ensure that we identify the harmful emissions, accurately measure their impact and design appropriate technologies, or procedures to mitigate or eliminate their effects. We are doing this. As part of our Next Generation Air Transportation System effort to advance our understanding in this area, we recently launched the Aviation Climate Change Research Initiative in partnership with NASA and other agencies. We hope this initiative will help accelerate our scientific understanding to inform policy decisions in this area.
Second, we must accelerate air traffic management improvements and efficiencies to reduce fuel burn. Improving energy efficiency has the dual benefit of improving both environmental and financial performance of the aviation sector. As I said before, we have saved millions of tons of carbon emissions over the past couple of years by putting RVSM in place. We are accelerating implementation of RNAV, RNP and other procedures to further improve the fuel efficiency of the system. We are working with our European counterparts to advance the use of environmentally friendly procedures across the Atlantic through the Atlantic Interoperability Initiative to Reduce Emissions (AIRE).
Third, we must hasten the development of promising environmental improvements in aircraft technology. This builds upon the fact that the vast majority of improvements in environmental performance over the last three decades has come from enhancements in engine and airframe design. We currently have legislation before Congress that would create a research consortium, to be called CLEEN, focused on accelerating the maturation of lower energy, emissions and noise technology for aircraft.
Fourth, it is imperative to explore the potential of alternative fuels for aviation – fuels that improve emissions performance at both the local and global level. This has benefits in improving not only environmental performance but also energy security. The FAA is a major partner in the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuel Initiative, or CAAFI. CAAFI’s participants – which include a cross-section of airlines, manufacturers, airports, petroleum firms, federal agencies and international players – are implementing a road-map to explore the use of alternative fuels for commercial aviation. Let me emphasize this is not “pie in the sky”. We have already seen limited use of coal-to-liquid fuels in aviation, and some testing of bio-fuels.
Finally, a variety of market-based measures may offer assistance in managing aviation emissions growth. Approaches using tax incentives, emissions trading or carbon offsets may all have a role to play. The key is to ensure we are adopting cost-beneficial measures and that we respect the prerogative of States to develop and implement measures they believe are appropriate. Attempting a “one size fits all” approach on the international community will only benefit lawyers, not the environment.
In all these endeavours, we believe ICAO must continue to exercise global leadership to achieve aviation growth in an environmentally responsible fashion. ICAO offers the best forum to find the harmonized approaches we need for a global industry like aviation. It allows the proper balance of collaboration and State sovereignty.
We are committed to supporting that effort. Beginning next month, I will represent the U.S. in the fifteen-nation Group on International Aviation and Climate Change. This high-level group was conceived during last year’s ICAO Assembly and is being set up to develop an international plan to address international greenhouse gas emissions. My hope is to take the approach I have outlined here – a balanced approach derived from the recognition that operational and technological environmental performance improvements, coupled with market measures where necessary, can form the basis to derive data-driven, challenging, aspirational goals for the international community.
Aviation has succeeded in its first century because it has constantly met the challenge of innovation and record setting – flying faster, higher, and safer. In doing so, aviation has transformed the world. Any fair reading of history will show that until now, aviation has done an exceptional job in improving its environmental performance. But to be blunt, the issue isn’t past performance, but what records we’re going to set for the future.
I have outlined briefly here an approach the U.S. is pursuing to tackle the issues of aviation and climate change through its NextGen endeavours. My hope is that through this approach we will find a way forward – both domestically and internationally – to set firmly in place an effective framework to address the many significant environmental challenges we face. In this way, we will achieve the environmental record we need to ensure aviation brings continued benefits to people in the U.S. and around the world in its second century.
Daniel Elwell is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Assistant Administrator for Aviation Policy, Planning and Environment. This article is taken from a speech made to the National Aeronautics Association on 16 January 2008.
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