Aviation industry needs to learn how to say ‘1.5’

January 6, 2016

While the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) continued its essential work to develop a global market-based mechanism to cut the sector’s emissions, by far the biggest highlight of 2015 was the Paris COP21 summit.

There are reasons to both welcome and be critical of the Paris outcome. I’d come down on the more hopeful side: the agreement provides a whole new framework for addressing climate change, establishes new procedures and gives environmental activists a lot to work with in the coming years. However, one of the big regrets is that there was no specific reference to emissions from international aviation and shipping. This is problematic as they are a significant and fast growing source of emissions which are not accounted for in national inventories – the basis of the Paris agreement.

This confirmed what we knew all along – that the aviation sector receives special privileges, and that these privileges (or should we say subsidies?) have compounded to inflate growth to the point where the sector is now a major driver of climate change.

This can be summed up in the sector’s inability to acknowledge perhaps the most significant outcome from Paris: the new global commitment to limit a temperature increase to 1.5°C. The sector always talks about emission reductions in a very abstract sense – how many tonnes of emissions can be reduced through new operating procedures or technology. These are welcome developments, but they must now be measured against the new global target of 1.5°C.

Unless pressured by others, the sector will continue to ignore 1.5°C. Statements from industry and ICAO on the Paris agreement both failed to mention the new target – a disappointing sign that they believe they can continue with business-as-usual.

Trying to opt out of 1.5°C isn’t the only privilege that the sector sought in Paris. Fuel used for international aviation continues to be tax-free, which is proving especially problematic in this current period of record low oil prices. There is now growing evidence that industry is holding on to out-dated gas guzzlers instead of purchasing new, more efficient aircraft. There is now a risk that design efficiency improvements will continue to decline as manufactures will be less certain of demand for the most efficient aircraft. A tax on fuel for international aviation would correct this trend, yet ICAO arrived in Paris insisting that the sector retain this privilege. I learned in 2015 that aviation will always see itself as a special case.

What I also learned at Paris is that addressing aviation emissions is not just a concern for the European Union, as is often portrayed by some. Many other states, developed and developing, joined the EU in calling for the sector’s inclusion in the agreement. Not in sufficient numbers, but it shows that this issue isn’t going away in 2016. Let’s see what more I will learn.

Related Articles

View All