Buttigieg warns of sharp rise in aviation emissions without rapid change

Buttigieg warns of sharp rise in aviation emissions without rapid change
© Greg Nash

If world leaders do not take “dramatic, urgent action” to support the deployment of low-carbon aircraft, the global aviation sector will experience a “substantial additional growth in emissions over the next 30 years,” Transportation Secretary Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegAirlines suspend US flights in response to 5G deployment AT&T, Verizon to delay 5G rollout near certain airports Top Democrats call on AT&T and Verizon to delay 5G rollouts near airports MORE warned at a panel during the U.N.'s Climate Change Conference (COP26) on Wednesday. 

“The reality is that the timelines are not being dictated by conferences or by congresses — they're being set by the laws of physics,” Buttigieg said. “We can control our response and with that, we can shape our collective future. So in the U.S., we are making up for lost time, accelerating our action and our commitments.”

Buttigieg was participating in a session celebrating the launch of the International Aviation Climate Ambition Coalition. In an official COP26 declaration published alongside the session, Coalition signatories acknowledged the need “to align international efforts to reduce emissions from the aviation sector consistent with a pathway towards achieving this temperature limit.”

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“Aviation is so central to the fabric of our global economy and our global community,” Buttigieg said. “And of course, it's how so many of us got here this week.”

To ensure that the aviation sector is working toward the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement — in which countries agreed to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) — the Coalition signatories have set a “long-term aspirational goal” to achieve net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, under the leadership of the International Civil Aviation Organization, according to the declaration. 

The parties agreed to address aviation emissions goals in the short-, medium- and long-term — while also working toward the deployment of sustainable aviation fuels, as well as establishing a formal Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation. 

Addressing specific actions taken by the U.S., Buttigieg touted the Federal Aviation Administration’s new Aviation Climate Action Plan, which he launched at COP26 on Tuesday. The Aviation Climate Action Plan sets a goal of net zero emissions for U.S. aviation by 2050, while providing a variety of measures to achieve that target — including increased production of sustainable fuels, the development of new aircraft technologies, increased operations efficiencies and cutting airport emissions. 

“We've also announced an investment of more than $200 million, including matching private funds, to advance aviation technologies that will reduce fuel use, emissions and noise,” Buttigieg said. “Our view is that just like vehicles on the ground, the future of aviation is a sustainable one.”

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While Buttigieg stressed the importance of capturing the domestic economic benefits that new jobs in the sector will bring, he said that he and his colleagues “also welcome global competition.”

“We believe that U.S. innovators will thrive more under that kind of healthy pressure,” Buttigieg added. “Like so many of the challenges we face, our success will depend, in sustainable aviation, on global coordination.”

British Transportation Minister Trudy Harrison likewise called for “urgent action to prevent increasing temperatures from inflicting terrible damage on the planet.”

“And yet demand for air travel continues to grow,” Harrison said. “We have no alternative means of traveling fast over long distances and no prospects of a low-carbon competitor to international travel on the horizon.”

Neither the rise of internet communication nor the coronavirus pandemic have slowed the need for air travel, particularly as air freight continued to shuttle medical and food supplies around the world, Harrison continued. And despite some improvements in aircraft fuel efficiency, the industry is still one of the “fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions,” she added. 

“It's a dilemma of global proportions and yet it's the inherently international nature of aviation that also provides us with our greatest opportunity,” Harrison said. “Only global cooperation can put aviation on a truly sustainable path so that we don't simply displace emissions elsewhere, or damage our connectivity.”