Only a global pricing measure can keep aviation carbon-neutral, says scientist

March 16, 2013

A study by one of the world’s leading climate scientists says only a global market-based measure, such as a tradable price for CO2 emissions, will keep the growth of aviation carbon-neutral. The finding contradicts the line given by opponents of the EU’s plans for aviation emissions trading, and comes at a critical time in international efforts to tackle the climatic impacts of air transport. In a separate development, MEPs and Member States have sent a signal to international negotiators that the EU’s gesture to delay the enforcement of emissions trading is limited to one year, and time is running out.

In the 15 years since the Kyoto protocol handed responsibility for tackling aviation’s contribution to climate change to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), progress has been restricted by claims that a global market-based measure is not possible. Last November, ICAO accepted that it was possible, but the political will needed to be established. At that point, the EU agreed to ‘stop the clock’ on introducing aviation into its Emissions Trading Scheme for one year. This was to allow a ‘high-level group’ of geographically representative senior government officials to make proposals for a market-based measure, which would then be put to the next ICAO assembly in September 2013.

The high-level group has met twice but has made very little progress. One of the reasons is that countries like the USA have argued that technological and operational measures, as well as using biofuels will be enough at this point to deal with the problem. This is why the study by Professor David Lee could be influential, as it concludes that the total emissions reduction potential of ICAO’s  current  ‘basket of measures’ will be  insufficient to keep the growth of aviation carbon-neutral from 2020. He concludes that only a global market-based carbon pricing measure plus the ‘basket’ can prevent aviation adding to climate problems.

The timing of Lee’s study, Bridging the aviation CO2 emissions gap: why emissions trading is needed, earlier this month was also interesting. It was published just before the ICAO Council and its ‘high-level group’ were due to meet, as the deadline to achieve a satisfactory solution before September comes closer. The study looked at all CO2 reduction measures for aviation currently under discussion, including the extension of the EU ETS until 2050. It concludes that even a ‘middle of the road’ industry growth scenario with a high level of CO2 mitigation would still leave an ‘emissions gap’ as big as a third of today’s international emissions from aircraft.

T&E aviation programme manager Bill Hemmings said: ‘This study demonstrates that claims from industry, ICAO and leading governments that aviation’s emissions can be tamed without a global market-based measure are patently false. The research shows definitively that implementing a global carbon pricing measure on top of other measures is the only way to stop aviation’s climate impact. There can be no further excuses – ICAO needs to face up to its responsibilities very fast, and act to implement global carbon pricing.’

The EU’s gesture in ‘stopping the clock’, aimed at removing any political obstacle to a global deal through ICAO, has been ratified by the European Parliament. MEPs voted last month to approve the one-year delay, and an agreed text with the Council has now been confirmed with ministers. T&E issued a statement with three other Brussels-based NGOs, saying the ‘stop the clock’ concession was bigger than necessary, but applauding MEPs for emphasising that the EU’s clock will restart if ICAO does not deliver a global measure.

Both ICAO and the aviation industry are committed to carbon-neutral growth from 2020. With aviation traffic growing at 4-5% a year, aviation is already responsible for 5% of global warming.