Analysis: Kyoto Protocol and Aviation’s CO2 Impact

There is simply no rational denial to this simple fact: the amount of human-created CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere has climbed at an extraordinary rate, and to unprecedented levels.

The earliest fossils of our species, Homo sapiens, date back to 200,000 years ago. Our scientists have compiled a much longer record of CO2 in our atmosphere, going back 400,000 years. That record shows that CO2 levels naturally rise and fall over time, mostly related to wobble in Earth’s orbit around the sun, as explained by the Milankovitch Cycles. As seen in this graph, natural CO2 variation follows a 100,000 year cycle, with CO2 levels bottoming at 180 ppm (parts per million), rapidly climbing to peaks around 290 ppm CO2, then gradually decreasing back to the 180 ppm level. We should have peaked out at 290 ppm around 1950, but the CO2 concentration just keeps climbing. In other words, while a natural history shows the record peaks were 290 ppm atmospheric CO2, we are now way above that and hit 400 ppm earlier this summer. Worse, we have full confidence that, based on the last 55-years of careful measurements, we will see consistent annual rises of 2-3 ppm. Thus, we will peak around 403 ppm in 2014, and around 430 ppm in 2024. All of this added CO2 is energizing our weather systems, which in turn is accelerating land erosion and disrupting the timing of natural growing cycles. The insects and plants are forced to adapt or die, which puts our food supply at risk. The changes are so fast that adaptation is failing … which puts US at risk.

Consider this: humans did not even become aware that their atmospheric CO2 level was climbing so rapidly and was clearly connected to fossil fuel consumption until the 1950’s, and it took another three decades to begin to frame international solutions to the emerging Climate Change problems. We are way behind the curve on this. Furthermore, there is no evidence that this CO2 upward trend will change, without a concerted human effort to cap CO2 emissions … which means, curbing personal consumption of energy. The low-hanging fruit is obvious: better insulation; lifestyles that are more locally focused; and less travel, which will particularly impact Aviation.

How did we get to this situation?

Anthropogenic CO2 emissions since 1750. Note the dramatic rise in fossil fuel use (red line), starting around 1951

The human habit of massive CO2 generation via the burning of fossil fuels is a relatively recent development. As this graph shows, fossil fuel use barely rose until the late 1800’s. The earliest increases in fossil fuel consumption were the use of coal, to power machines in the early Industrial Revolution. But, real changes in the rate of fossil fuel consumption correlated with the development of railroad transportation systems (late 1800’s), followed by the development of the automobile and its marketing as a mass-consumption item (just after 1900), and lastly by the rise of modern global lifestyles (with suburban commutes, international air travel, and thousands of mass-marketed gas-powered convenience devices such as lawnmowers, from the 1950’s onward).

This unprecedented increase in anthropogenic CO2 emissions puts aviation on a collision course. Someday, and likely within the next 5-10 years, Aviation will have to resolve the fact that, when a person chooses to fly, they gain the convenience of speed while making a disproportionately large contribution to the atmospheric CO2 balance. This is a clear tradeoff, with the passenger gaining a personal ‘luxury’ at a cost to the environment. So, if we are ever to become serious about addressing Earth’s CO2 balance and minimizing Climate Change impact, energy use in Aviation is among the low-hanging fruit — and it will be one of the first and easiest targets used to reduce our emissions.

The Kyoto Protocol

The acceptance of the fact that we have a CO2 problem, and that it will drastically change our world via Climate Change, generally began in the 1980’s. A key step was international agreement to be bound by the Kyoto Protocol. Essentially, all participating nations set targets, with commitments to reduce their CO2 emissions at future dates. A first commitment period sought modest reductions (around 4-5% below 1990 levels) during the 2008-2012 timeframe; a second commitment period sought more substantial reductions during the 2013-2020 timeframe.

The U.S. is by far the leading source of atmospheric CO2. Can the U.S. become a leader in solving this problem?

The treaty also recognized that developing countries had a much smaller per capita impact; specifically, for 2010, an average person in a developing country caused barely a quarter of the CO2 emissions by an average person in a developed country. Because of this disparate per capita impact, UNFCCC placed a larger burden upon the developed nations to reduce their CO2 emissions.

This larger burden was the basis for U.S. rejection of the Kyoto Protocol. Many would reasonably see this U.S. rejection as a declaration that we as a nation are ‘exceptional’ with our right to consume far in excess of the average world citizen.

Here is a short chronology of the Kyoto Protocol:

  • 1988: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established jointly by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme.
  • May 9, 1992: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted in New York. A condition was that the new Protocol would not be entered into force until ratified by at least 55 nations attending the convention.
  • December 11, 1997: The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in Kyoto, Japan.

    Before & After: mining of the Alberta Tar Sands

  • 2001: The U.S. Senate voted to reject the Kyoto Protocol because it did not set binding goals on the lower-impact developing countries. President Bush then withdrew U.S. endorsement of the Kyoto Protocol.
  • 2002: Russia and Canada ratified the Kyoto Protocol.
  • February 16, 2005: Kyoto Protocol entered into force (became effective).
  • 2009: A new administration under President Obama raised the possibility that U.S. leaders would take action in support of the Kyoto Protocol. Later that year, another Climate Change conference was convened at Copenhagen, and produced new CO2 emission targets.
  • 2011: Canada, under new Prime Minister Stephen Harper, withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol. At the same time, Canada was ramping up Tar Sands mining, with destruction of vast areas of Alberta, Harper’s home province.
  • 2012: another UNFCCC, this time at Doha, Qatar, produced amendments to the Kyoto Protocol. The list of greenhouse gases (GHG) was revised, and participating nations amended their commitments to reduced CO2 emissions.
  • 2013: My country, the United States, is still reeling from the greed that precipitated the 2009 financial collapse, at the end of the Bush administration (which was started under regulatory repeals in the Clinton administration). As such, we remain obsessed with job creation and continue to dodge any meaningful commitment to curbing our appetite for excessive fossil fuel consumption.

So, how is Aviation dealing with this situation?

It appears that Aviation has two key strategies: first, to simply delay, and then delay some more; and second, to somehow develop a means of powering aviation without fossil fuels. Neither is a real solution. And, the evidence is absolute, that FAA is working hand-in-glove with aviation leaders pursuing these two failed strategies.**The same ‘delay, delay’ strategy is also being used by other officials, beyond FAA. For example, see this article WEB with many archived document copies, showing how Copenhagen was just a repeat of Kyoto, twelve years earlier. In fact, many of the officials involved have not changed.

There are many news articles — and they are increasing in frequency — touting research and funding for aviation biofuels. The Public is made to feel there is an imminent and wonderful technological solution to the problem, and the image of college students doing research projects and new jobs to reduce unemployment does not undermine that sales job. The Public is made to believe this, because the PR campaign is so well engineered. But, the core solution is frankly not yet defined. At this point, it is all just smoke and hologram.

The fact is: the world population continues to grow, and many will protest if/when we find land is being used to grow aviation fuel instead of food. Eventually, something has to give.