Last chance for aviation emissions

In today's blog, T&E programme manager on aviation Bill Hemmings urges ICAO, at the eve of its governing Council meeting, to finally make significant progress towards a global market-based measure to cut airlines' emissions.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Council meeting this Friday 9th November is the Organisation’s last chance to see meaningful action on controlling CO2 emissions from international aviation this decade.

ICAO has been under particular pressure to act ever since its 2004 decision not to develop a global measure to curb aviation greenhouse gases opened the way for the EU to move regionally by including aviation in its Emissions Trading System (ETS).

Opponents of Europe’s measure now cry foul and say that, after all, global action under ICAO is the way to go. If indeed this is correct, then it’s time for the naysayers to put their money where their mouth is, so to speak, and ensure ICAO delivers the goods. And that’s particularly true of the United States, which sees no reason for global action and has made a practice in the various UN climate change fora, most recently the IMO, of blocking even the smallest progress towards multilateral solutions.

A year ago the ICAO Secretary General pushed publicly for his Organisation to agree a proposal for global action by March 2013. That deadline won’t be met but there is still a chance over the next 3 months that ICAO’s Council can finalise a proposal next March to be approved at its triennial meeting in September 2013. However, to achieve this, ICAO’s Council needs to agree this week on a much accelerated work plan and resolve many pending political questions which prevent substantive progress.

At the same time, the Obama Administration and its “Coalition of the Unwilling” have been blaming Europe’s aviation ETS for their failure to get together in a room in Montreal and agree a global plan. Not such a tough mission you’d think, since they’ve supposedly been at it since 1997, when Kyoto tasked ICAO with taking action. So let’s see on Friday whether Europe’s opponents really take the ICAO option seriously and get it moving or whether it all amounts to mere rhetoric.

Meanwhile undoubted beneficiaries of Europe’s union such as Airbus and Lufthansa blame the whole controversy on Europe and call on their state shareholders to dismantle the ETS as regards aviation – all in the name of profits, aircraft sales and relations with China. It must be hard for Europe to run a sensible foreign policy when some of its principal constituents are playing for the other side.

The airlines are also backing themselves into a corner. Aviation already accounts for nearly 5% of global warming and emissions will continue to grow 3-5% a year. So a green fix is absolutely needed, and preferably a cheap one.

Europe’s ETS actually does just that by abating emissions in other sectors where the costs are cheaper. And because the EU had already allocated some emissions allowances to other sectors like power and steel for free, aviation got the same deal allowing for full cost pass through on some routes and potentially windfall profits.

But now its trade association IATA, in a truly impressive volte face, turns on and condemns the EU scheme as an attack on sovereignty and a threat to the industry worldwide and dismisses windfall profits as out of the question. So this week’s Council meeting would seem to be pretty important for the airlines as well – at least in order to keep the pressure on the ETS. However if the ETS should crumble and ICAO doesn’t deliver, then the emperor will be left standing naked. But perhaps that was the plan all along?

The airline industry is the most carbon intensive form of transport by a factor of at least 10, yet it has been able to arrange over the past 50 years possibly the most egregious set of fossil fuel subsidies of any industry (worldwide exemption on fuel tax and, in Europe, exemption of VAT on tickets). Airlines are used to getting their way. No doubt their failure to address climate change impacts if all avenues fail is a mere detail to be left to the PR consultants.

As far as ICAO and the United States is concerned, President Obama’s re-election presents the US with a real opportunity to lead. After all, the US does have a problem; its international aviation emissions are growing 3-4% per annum like the rest of the world, while its annual aviation emissions per head of population are a staggering twice the level of Europe. Let’s hope for a sign from the Americans this week in Montreal that the US is finally taking the climate change challenge seriously.

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