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Where Are Airplane Emissions in the Paris Agreement?

International aviation is conspicuously absent from the landmark global climate plan—That’s a mistake.

Image via Wikimedia Commons user U.S. Air Force

The final climate change agreement adopted by negotiators at the Paris conference Saturday could be a turning point for the planet. But there’s a very conspicuous absence from the plan: the international aviation industry. If you fly, air travel may be “your biggest carbon sin.” Aviation is responsible for about 2 percent of all global emissions, The New York Times has reported, and it is an important contributor to global climate change. The European Commission estimates that even if airplanes become more fuel efficient, international aviation emissions will shoot up 70 percent between 2005 and 2020.


But aviation (and a similarly emissions-heavy industry, shipping) was excluded from this month’s Paris talks because it is technically managed by a separate U.N. organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Despite the industry’s effects on the environment, the word “aviation” does not appear in the climate deal once.

“[I]f there is no movement” in aviation emissions, European Union climate and energy head Miguel Arias Canete said Monday, “then we will be in the middle of a very big problem.”

Fortunately, the ICAO will be working on international aviation standards at its assembly in September. A senior official from the airline industry told journalists last week that there is “genuine momentum building behind the ICAO process.”

What will an ambitious plan to reduce industry emissions actually look like? The U.N. body is supposedly looking at a “market-based system” that will include the purchase of carbon offsets. The group is also expected to establish a global carbon emission standard for all aircraft.

The Solar Impulse 2, a solar-powered airplane. Image via YouTube screen capture.[

Meanwhile, others in the aviation industry are working to change the flying paradigm entirely. Airbus is reportedly experimenting with replacing the small gas engines responsible for generating on-board electrical power with emission-free hydrogen fuel cells. Boeing has demonstrated its Phantom Eye, a hydrogen-fueled unmanned aircraft meant for surveillance and reconnaissance (and not commercial flights). And the Solar Impulse 2, “the only airplane of perpetual endurance, able to fly day and night on solar power, without a drop of fuel,” has flown a cumulative 12,500 miles since March 2015.

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