How can you regulate something you don’t measure properly?

September 29, 2011

Opinion by Jos Dings - T&E deputy director All the current talk about developments in aviation and environment seems centred on the row over the impending introduction of emissions trading for the sector. But something else is going on in the aviation world that could have very important global repercussions too. It is to do with measuring the fuel efficiency of aircraft, something that is totally normal in the road traffic sector. But in aviation, the issue is being made artificially complicated, and being hidden from daylight.

[mailchimp_signup][/mailchimp_signup]The latest annual steering group meeting of Icao’s Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP) went by unnoticed by outsiders. That’s as normal as it is forgiveable; the committee is not known for its paradigm-changing initiatives, and the latest meeting in Beijing was no exception. But still there’s a story worth telling. The story is one of the industry trying to thwart another global initiative to reduce emissions but not (yet) getting it its way because it has asked for things that are unacceptable.

The issue at stake is the development of a CO2 standard for aircraft – specifically, the development of a metric to measure CO2 emissions from aircraft. While this all sounds awfully boring, it is also rather important: you cannot have any CO2 policy on aircraft – be it labelling, differentiated airport charges, or indeed binding standards – if you don’t agree on how to measure CO2, or if the metric does not make sense.

All too unsurprisingly, the aviation industry does not like the idea of governments telling it to make aircraft more efficient. It therefore convinced itself (and half the world) that aircraft are already as fuel-efficient as possible because fuel is such a significant cost in aviation. The result was a go-slow approach to reducing fuel consumption that has led to serious delays.

With growing pressure for a CO2 standard for aircraft, the aviation industry argued that the purpose of such a standard should not be to reduce emissions, but simply to compare technologies. It sounds surreal but it’s unfortunately true. Yet even the CAEP steering group saw through that one – one of its greatest decisions was in making emissions reduction the whole point of the exercise.

The aviation industry is now arguing that fuel consumption, and thus CO2, can be measured well enough at only one (!) point in the cruise phase of a plane’s flight – this despite the fact that more than half of all flights are short-haul where the climb phase is as important as the cruising phase. This approach risks making the standard-setting process a farce – how can you regulate something you don’t measure properly? But that was probably the whole point. It would be hard to imagine the car industry getting away with measuring CO2 from cars only at a constant 80 km/h, but in aviation nothing is that obvious. Through the International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation (the ‘green’ watchdog that watches over Icao; T&E is a founding member) we fought hard for a more sensible, full-flight-based approach, with the result that CAEP has now said both approaches should be studied in more detail.

So it is still possible we might arrive at a sensible assessment of the fuel efficiency of different aircraft. No doubt it would confirm existing evidence that, despite all the spin about ‘dreamliners’ and ‘green giants’, improvements in the energy efficiency of aircraft have stalled over the past 20 years. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been plenty of technological development – there has, but the technology gains have gone principally into flying faster and farther, rather than reducing emissions. This realisation might force a change of mind with our governments.

Meanwhile the planes keep flying and the planet keeps heating up. But to speak in aviation terms: we’re in it for the long haul.

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