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Damian Ryan: UN aviation climate deal disappointing

06 September 2013
Damian Ryan: UN aviation climate deal disappointing

Damian Ryan our Senior Policy Manager, writes about the International Civil Aviation Organization's recent decision on sector mechanisms.

News that countries have reached a weak agreement for addressing emissions from international aviation through its UN body is a disappointing, but not surprising, outcome of several years of talks.

ETS plan reversed

At a council meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on September 4, countries agreed to develop full details of a market-based mechanism for the sector by 2016, which would come into effect in 2020. The agreement will also see the EU back away from its controversial decision to include international flights in its emissions trading scheme (ETS), which was put on hold in December 2012 pending progress in ICAO. 

ICAO has had a mandate to deal with international aviation emissions since 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol ‘invited’ it to address the problem. Progress was limited, however, until the EU announced in 2007 that it intended to include the international aviation sector in its ETS. This unilateral proposal helped to spur activity but there has remained stubborn resistance to addressing emissions from both governments and industry.

Opposition from the US, India and China

US airlines, for example, have lobbied strongly against international action. Tight industry margins, an aging (and hence more polluting) fleet, plus the domestic political debate on climate change meant that the US government has never been an advocate of great ambition. The successful passing of legislation in 2012 forbidding US airlines from complying with the EU-ETS crowned the achievements of the US airline lobby.

The major emerging countries, notably India and China, have also opposed strong action. Their argument has been that the problem is one for developed countries to solve, citing the UNFCCC principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ (CBDR). As India and China see it, richer countries should take the lead in tackling aviation emissions because they have the capacity to do so. Such reasoning conveniently ignores the fact that international aviation users, whether European, American, Chinese or Indian, almost invariably represent the world’s economically well-off – individuals well placed to shoulder their climate impact.

Such rationality, however, hasn’t cut much ice within the ICAO discussions. Political and negotiating strategies are far more important factors. 

ICAO progress hindered

The reality for aviation is that progress in ICAO is inextricably tied to the wider UNFCCC climate negotiations. With the exception of the EU, no other countries have been prepared to concede or advance negotiating points in ICAO for fear of undermining wider national positions within the UNFCCC. This is especially true for India, China and others with respect to CBDR; conceding that emerging economies airlines should be treated the same as developed country ones for climate purposes (even though this is the case for all other aviation issues), is seen as the start of a slippery slope.

So, as UN talks have waxed and waned, so too have efforts within ICAO. With the UN climate negotiations now locked into a new process with firm 2015 and 2020 deadlines for concluding and ratifying a new global treaty respectively, the timeline for ICAO action has duly fallen into step.

Moving goalposts for the EU

For the EU, this is, on the face of it, a considerable climb down from the ambition that they have previously championed. Not only do they have to wait until 2020 for a global deal that they’ve wanted for years, but they have also had to concede that any action of their own in the meantime must be limited to EU airspace. There is a lesson here perhaps of diplomatic overreach. Equally, it is possible that without the bullish efforts by the EU over the past six years or more, ICAO and the rest of the international community would still be ignoring the problem. For this at least the EU deserves a note of thanks.

The airline industry, however, will no doubt be relieved by the overall outcome. Although a number of airlines had called for earlier and more ambitious action – notably those belonging to the Aviation Global Deal Group, such as British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific and others – the industry as a whole settled on a relatively unambitious ‘carbon neutral growth’ target for 2020. The deal agreed in ICAO is thus likely to fit in well with the industry’s plans and views.

The real loser in all of this is of course the climate. Carbon dioxide emissions from the international aviation represent about 2% of total global emissions. If the sector were a country it would be the 7th largest polluter. In addition, non-CO2 greenhouse gases are also emitted by aircraft, which scientists believe add significantly to aviation’s overall climate impact. Delaying action on international aviation is not therefore a trivial matter. Unfortunately, for the moment, many governments still seem to consider that it is.

Read: Damian Ryan: How London could be a smarter, more agile city

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