What will it take for airlines emissions reductions to get off the ground?

The aviation industry can affordably meet and beat its goal of halting carbon emissions growth from 2020 if it uses high-quality, low-cost carbon offsets, according to a new analysis from Environmental Defense Fund and Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

This analysis comes on the heels of a consolidated industry call for the governments of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to commit, at their next triennial September meeting, to adopt a mandatory global program to limit aviation’s carbon pollution by 2016 at the latest.

While forecasts are inherently uncertain, best estimates indicate that while new technologies, operations and infrastructure can help the industry dampen emissions growth, substantial increases in aviation emissions are likely after 2020. Consequently, to meet their proposed mandatory goal of “carbon-neutral growth from 2020,” it is very likely that airlines will need some kind of carbon offsetting mechanism.

Airlines could meet their emissions target at a very modest cost with an offset mechanism that limits credit supply to high-quality carbon units currently available and expected to come online in the future. If governments adopt tough criteria ensuring that offsets represent real reductions in net carbon emissions, and if industry moves swiftly to capture those carbon units, the costs to airlines could be quite low. For example, costs could be less than 0.5 percent of projected total international airline revenue in 2015, and less than a third of the fees airlines collected last year for checked bags, legroom and snacks.

In the current round of talks, the aviation industry is asking governments to mandate caps on airlines’ emissions at 2020 levels. Our analysis finds that a well-designed, high-integrity carbon offset program would make carbon-neutral growth from 2020 so affordable that governments justifiably could hold airlines to a much tighter emissions target. That could mean putting back on the table a target the industry had proposed several years ago, namely cutting emissions 50 percent by 2050.

“These findings show that the international aviation sector can control its CO2 emissions easily and cheaply by using market based mechanisms,” said report co-author Guy Turner, chief economist for Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “The relatively small cost and ability to pass any costs through into ticket prices should encourage the international aviation sector to accelerate and deepen its emission reduction pledges. More ambitious emission reductions now look much more doable than mere stabilization from 2020.”

The analysis offers context to the costs of such a global market-based mechanism using offsets with strong environmental integrity, which the aviation industry called on ICAO last month to adopt to keep the industry’s net emissions stable from 2020 on. Such an offset program would allow the airlines to meet their emissions targets both by making emissions cuts within the aviation sector and drawing on offsets that represent real emission cuts in other sectors.

A well-designed global offset program, using high-quality offsets that represent real reductions in emissions, could add only a few dollars to a typical international fare:

From Paris (CDG) to Beijing (PEK): $1.90 – $3.00

From Paris (CDG) to Delhi (DEL): $1.50-$2.30

From Paris (CDG) to Cape Town (CPT): $2.40-$3.70

From Paris (CDG) to Buenos Aires (EZE): $2.70-$4.30

From New York (JFK) to Buenos Aires (EZE): $2.10-$3.20

This article originally appeared on Environmental Defense Fund's EDF Talks Global Climate blog and is reprinted with permission.

Airplane image by Joshua Davis vis Flickr