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ICAO Redefines Fossil Fuels in Attempt to Reduce Global Aviation Emissions

An Etihad A330-200 in the carrier’s newest paint scheme in Dusseldorf. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Fabian Behr)

Much to the dismay of environmentalists, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an agency of the United Nations, came to an agreement to declare fossil fuels as “green alternative fuels” to help reduce carbon emissions by the global aviation industry.

The agreement is a real head-scratcher for most, requiring a significant amount of mental dexterity to understand. Conventional understanding of green alternative fuels is that they’re a sort of energy that has a minimal environmental impact and release of greenhouse gases. However, this recent agreement sets a very broad definition as to what a green fuel is.

The definition, at least for the aviation industry, was broadened to include fossil fuels as green fuels as long as they emit less carbon over their life-cycle than conventional fuels. This takes into account the refining process, especially if the refinery is using renewable energy or using environmentally friendly refining processes.

Carbon Offsets

This newly-broadened definition comes at the tail end of talks to establish a new system of carbon offsets for the aviation industry. All international passenger and cargo flights, inclusive of private aircraft, which generate more than 10,000 metric tons of emissions annually will be required to purchase carbon offset credits starting in 2020.

This is a system that has been applied to many industries with some success at reducing emissions. The ICAO is using this as an “important headway” as airlines are now going to need to start tracking their fuel consumption and emissions better. Airlines already do this, as less fuel consumption by aircraft equals less fuel purchased by the airline, but this will encourage them to do more in this area.

The ICAO will reconvene later this year to further hash out the details of this plan along with further goals to help reduce global aviation emissions, but not everyone seems to be onboard. Growing economies such as China and Brazil are heavy users of fossil fuels and do not seem too enthusiastic about the looming restrictions.

On the other end of the spectrum, several European countries are threatening to leave the agreement due to environmental regulations and definitions being loosened to accommodate those who are not entirely onboard.

Dissent on the Solution

It is the general consensus that aviation emissions will continue to grow moving forward, regardless of advancements in fuel efficiency through aircraft and engine design. Emissions will continue to rapidly increase due to the tremendous projected growth of air travel, both passenger and cargo.

Emissions related to aviation are estimated to be around 2 percent of global emissions, though some argue that due to the emissions being released at a high altitude that the impact of these emissions is magnified.

Though the steps the ICAO is taking are better than nothing, many consider it to be a bandage solution to a much larger problem. However, there isn’t a viable alternative at the moment. Developmental fuels and engines are still in the future and will require significantly more advancements until they are reliable enough for commercial use.

Unfortunately, when it comes to relatively loos enforcements like these, very little typically gets accomplished in the long run. The airline industry will need a strong financial incentive to move away from conventional fossil fuels.

Hemal Gosai


  • Hemal Gosai

    Hemal took his first flight at four years old and has been an avgeek since then. When he isn't working as an analyst he's frequently found outside watching planes fly overhead or flying in them. His favorite plane is the 747-8i which Lufthansa thankfully flies to EWR allowing for some great spotting. He firmly believes that the best way to fly between JFK and BOS is via DFW and is always willing to go for that extra elite qualifying mile.

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