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COP17: Aviation and maritime transport are the perennial problem sectors

07 December 2011
COP17: Aviation and maritime transport are the perennial problem sectors

Damian Ryan, Senior Policy Manager, The Climate Group, argues that pragmatic and fair solutions for addressing emissions from international aviation and maritime transport exist and that the keying to unlock action lies to a large extent in the hands of developing countries.

The issue of how to address emissions from international aviation and maritime transport has been a perennial issue within climate change negotiations.

Despite years of discussions both within the UNFCCC and its sister UN organizations, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), countries have been unable to agree any firm measures.

The fundamental problem is the clash of different legal treaty systems and the principles that they apply.  IMO and ICAO – organizations that have both been in existence for over 60 years – operate on the principle of equal national treatment. This means that measures agreed by parties are applied equally to all aircraft or ships, regardless of where they are from.

The UNFCCC by contrast was founded on the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR), which states that developed countries have greater responsibility and capacity for taking action to address climate change.

The consequence of this clash are two very different perspectives on how to address emissions from aviation and maritime sectors.

On one side, many developing countries see the problem as a climate change issue and therefore subject to the principles of the UNFCCC.  Developed countries in contrast consider that IMO/ICAO principles of equal treatment must apply in order to avoid market distortion.

It appears that progress in Durban has again become victim to this fundamental divide.

After a week or so of talks, the options on the table are as far apart as normal, and reflect long held positions. The situation is a bitter disappointment for many. This is not only because of the significant emission footprint of these unabated sectors (2% of global emissions for aviation and around 4% for shipping), but also because pragmatic solutions exists which could unlock significant financing to support vulnerable developing countries, reduce emissions and meet key political demands (see for example the work of the Aviation Global Deal Group). 

The biggest tragedy is that the key to unlocking the deadlock lies to a large extent with developing countries themselves. This is because insistence on the application of CBDR to international transport is completely counterproductive, particularly with respect to aviation.

Aviation is an industry in which developed and developing country airlines already compete on an equal footing. Indeed, some of the most successful international airlines are from developing countries. Distorting a level playing field would hurt an industry, which for 60 years has managed to reconcile all previous environmental problems without the need for such drastic differentiated regulation. 

Perhaps most pertinently, international aviation users are also essentially homogeneous. Whether they are from New York, Nanjing or New Delhi, their climate impact and their capacity to mitigate it is – in the great scheme of things – the same.

Unlike countries they are from, international aviation users have far more similarities than differences. Trying to shield one group of airlines from simple and cost-effective mitigation measures like emissions trading, will not lead to any effective emission reductions.

Instead, aviation users, whether they are from well-off or developing economies, will simply switch to those carriers not covered.

The losers from this perverse policy would be the world’s most vulnerable citizens who lose out on climate finance that could otherwise be raised from a sector-based market mechanism.  

Application of CBDR on a country basis, is a justified and legitimate position of developing countries. Application to aviation and maritime sectors simply blocks effective and potentially transformative solutions for industry and countries alike.

Further reading

Damian Ryan, Senior Policy Manager, The Climate Group, is writing news and analysis throughout COP17, and providing a more in-depth post-COP Briefing after the events. Keep up to date from daily round-ups on our website and by following him on Twitter during COP17.

Our international policy teams are have also commented on key regional positions in the lead-up to Durban; read about AustraliaChina,EuropeIndia and the US.

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