The clock has stopped but time is running out for ICAO

Opinion by Bill Hemmings

The clock may have been stopped for a year, but time is still passing. ‘Stopping the clock’ was a big gesture from the EU. With the world saying it was the EU’s decision to include aviation in its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) that was preventing global action to tackle aircraft’s contribution to climate change, the EU said ‘OK, we’ll suspend our action for a year to create the chance for a global agreement.’ Yet so far, little progress has been made and the blame heaped on the EU’s ETS looks more and more like the empty excuse we always thought it was.

The EU ordered the clock to be stopped after the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) set up a High-Level Aviation Climate Group to advise on key elements of a market-based global deal such as a global target, implementation date, whether the deal should be based on emissions trading or carbon offsetting, whether it should generate revenue or not and how emissions responsibilities would be allocated. The high-level group met in Montreal in early December and again in late January, but it seems as if its own clock has stuck. Instead of progress, the various states represented on it seem mired in disagreement.

An ICAO expert group spent 2012 studying options that would be fair to developing countries, given that any global scheme would have to include the developing world. The experts concluded that the favoured basis for a global market-based measure was either global carbon offsetting or emissions trading, yet the high-level group has spent little time moving these options forward. Instead, leading members are questioning the fundamental premise of why developing countries should participate at all in a global scheme. And as regards regional schemes like the EU’s, they are insisting that foreign carriers participate only by mutual agreement. This effectively gives any country the right of veto, which kills off the idea of progressing at the regional level.

In addition, the high-level group debate on allocating responsibility for emissions has opened a bottomless pit of national self-interest claims. This article is no place to explain the complexity of the negotiations, but in short, the US has led the way in proposing a scheme which would restrict the EU ETS and cover only 50% of global emissions. Countries like Singapore and the Gulf States, as well as Hong Kong, support this approach that shamelessly would see their carbon responsibility reduced by over 98%

No-one should pretend finding a global solution is easy. There are complex issues to do with accounting for emissions above countries where flights neither start nor finish (so-called ‘overflights’), the question of whether you regulate emissions on the basis of airspace or flight information regions , and the issue of how it is all administered fairly and transparently. But it’s worth reminding ourselves of the background to this issue: ICAO was charged in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol with limiting or reducing international aviation emissions. It then proceeded to reject almost every possible approach except emissions trading, which the ICAO Assembly unanimously recommended in 2004 should be implemented regionally or locally but not globally. The EU then embraced a regional emissions trading scheme involving all foreign carriers flying to Europe.  But ICAO members and the world’s leading airlines cried foul claiming that they had to agree before they could be included.

In this context, many of us felt the EU did not need to make its grand gesture of ‘stopping the clock’ for a year, particularly as the European Court of Justice rejected a challenge to the EU law by American carriers in late 2011. But it has done so for the sake of brokering a global deal. ICAO members, to retain any form of credibility, must act now to agree on a realistic proposal by September, at its triennial general assembly. Time is slipping away for the high-level group to work out such a proposal. Unless quick progress is made in the next few months, accusations that the EU’s ‘illegal and unilateral ETS’ prevented ICAO action will be laid bare as nothing but yet another stalling mechanism. And the shameless lobbying of Lufthansa, Air France, KLM, British Airways and Airbus, who were for the ETS before they turned against it, will become evident to all. Last but not least, the role of the US needs to be singled out; no other government has so consistently said one thing - only a global approach is acceptable – and done the other – putting every imaginable roadblock in the way. It’s time to become consistent – and agree on a global approach. The EU, airlines, and the world’s climate will be grateful.