A long way from ‘mission accomplished’ on aviation emissions

October 3, 2016

ICAO is about to proclaim mission accomplished in its 20-year search to appear relevant in the fight against aviation climate change. An impressive list of ministers and notables has gathered in the organisation’s Montreal headquarters to help break out the champagne. Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc, leading the EU delegation, summed up the aim: “To defend the deal on the table as the lowest common denominator, that is our target.”

After the EU decided in late 2012 to roll back much of its aviation emissions trading scheme, ICAO  passed an assembly resolution to agree, by the 2016 assembly, the details of a global measure to deliver carbon neutral growth from 2020 (CNG 2020). No one dreamed then that the result would be a mere voluntary commitment until 2027, falling well short of the geographic coverage required and being silent on essential environmental rules to guarantee any climate impact. Initial  emissions coverage could be less than 70% of what’s needed and, by 2035, will only account for 20% of accumulated CO2.

All this because of a rush for exemptions partly driven by US refusal, along with EU acquiescence, to build adequate provisions for differentiation – the principle that wealthy, developed countries should do more – which could easily have been done but largely at the expense of US and European carriers. Historical responsibility seems to have no place in ICAO. To cap things off, Montreal is set to celebrate an environmental agreement without any environmental safeguards. These will be decided down the road, in closed-door meetings when the world has turned its attention elsewhere.

As for environmental integrity, the deal relies exclusively on offsets; bad enough because we cannot move to a zero-carbon economy if some large emitters do not participate and simply rely on others to do the heavy lifting. That is why Europe now bans the use of offsets to meet its 2030 Paris target. What’s more, without adequate safeguards, reliance on offsets to deliver emissions reductions goes from questionable to illusory. But aviation will be permitted to use them in unlimited numbers because, of course, aviation is special. So special that the global ban on fuel taxation – worth a cool $65 billion (€58 billion) or so each year – must stay while states squabble over a suspect offsetting scheme that will cost carriers less than $2 billion a year. And while endless meetings and papers focus on ICAO, real measures are being passed up – efficiency standards, carbon pricing, fuel taxes, differentiated airport charges, etc.

What to do? ICAO must, I guess, be allowed to grind on with the process of finding the lowest common denominator. But that won’t deliver CNG in 2020. And it certainly won’t cut it as far as the 80-90% emissions reductions required by Paris are concerned; unchecked, aviation CO2 will alone occupy the entire carbon space by about 2060. The danger, of course, is that EU transport ministry delegates and their masters from the boardrooms of airlines and Airbus will return home and declare problem solved; passengers can carry on taking €19.99 Ryanair flights to Barcelona safe in the knowledge they’re not frying the planet in the quickest and cheapest way possible, but acting in a safe and responsible manner because the EU and ICAO have miraculously made aviation sustainable.

We don’t believe that EU citizens are that stupid. We believe they understand that a generation of politicians and bureaucrats have failed miserably in their responsibility to take the hard decisions necessary to rein in aviation’s out-of-control emissions. And the longer this drags on, the harder the task becomes for everyone. So we await with interest the Commission’s summing up of the ICAO outcome. What’s for sure is that the aviation ETS needs to be beefed up and all those inconvenient questions confronted square on; fuel tax, VAT exemptions, wasteful state aid, Airbus and national carrier subsidies, and institutional (ECB) investments in this most intensive of fossil fuel-subsidised industries. But also, individuals will need to think twice about that Maldives trip. Barcelona too.

Related Articles

View All