Planes and ships can’t escape Paris climate commitments

May 4, 2018

As delegates fly and equipment is shipped to another climate conference in Bonn, the question of who is responsible for the resulting emissions arises. The conventional wisdom is that they are covered not by the Paris agreement but by the two UN agencies which were established to regulate these sectors – the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). Three years ago this may have made sense. Until the Paris agreement was finalised at the end of 2015, the major climate agreement in force was the Kyoto Protocol which tasked developed countries to work through ICAO and IMO to cut emissions.

However, we know that the Paris agreement changed everything. Unlike Kyoto, which had specific emission targets only for developed countries, the Paris agreement requires all parties to address all emissions. That’s explicit in the agreement – parties are to establish ‘economy-wide’ emission reduction targets. Few would argue that shipping and aviation aren’t part of our economies.

As someone who attended the Paris conference, I remember the debate over who should regulate these emissions. Drafts had included references to ICAO and IMO, but they were dropped in the final negotiations. Perhaps the previous two decades of inaction by these agencies persuaded negotiators that they shouldn’t be granted a renewed contract. The final agreement is clear that all emissions are to be regulated, but is silent on what specific action this means for shipping and aviation.

It’s clear that the Paris agreement has put them in the spotlight like never before and efforts are being stepped up. ICAO agreed to establish an offsetting mechanism for some emissions starting in the 2020s, while three weeks ago the IMO agreed a long-term goal to cut emissions by at least 50% by 2050 while pursuing efforts for full decarbonisation. The jury is out on whether the ICAO deal will deliver any environmental benefit – we’re quite sceptical – and the proof of the IMO’s commitment will only start when it agrees on immediate measures.

It’s fair to say that these agencies have done more in the two years since Paris came into force than in the two decades which preceded it. However, leaving it uncertain who regulates, and hoping ICAO and IMO will fill the void, is not a credible strategy.

Even if these agencies were to transform overnight into the world’s greatest climate champions, for many reasons they’d lack the ability to decarbonise these sectors. These agencies strive for consensus decision-making among all parties, which holds back the more developed and ambitious parties from adopting the sort of measures that can rapidly bring emissions down.

But perhaps more importantly, these agencies lack the financial and legal power to get the job done. Take ICAO: that agency doesn’t have a legal mechanism to enforce its offsetting scheme. It also doesn’t have the resources to advance alternative solutions such as electrofuels. For the IMO it’s perhaps more realistic to expect states, which regulate who comes into their ports, to be leaders on issues such as battery-electrification or the supply and uptake of electrofuels. And let’s not forget that an agency such as ICAO, established to champion aviation’s growth, is not the venue to consider whether unchecked growth is compatible with the goals of the Paris agreement.

That’s why T&E publishes a paper this week calling for the inclusion of these sectors in countries’ climate pledges under the Paris agreement – known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). There’s no legal barrier to this: NDCs are bottom-up commitments, with states free to determine the scope and ambition of their pledges. The only rule is no back-sliding – once in, sectors can’t be taken out. There is perhaps an administrative barrier, as the legal guidelines agreed prior to Paris state that countries should report these emissions as footnotes to their other emissions inventories. However, it’s the guidelines which need to adjust to Paris, not the other way around.

Our paper details the numerous methods available to allocate these emissions and until an allocation method is agreed, parties are free to provisionally apply an allocation method such as emissions from all departing flights or ships or using a 50:50 approach for both inbound and outbound journeys.

What role could there be for ICAO and the IMO in such an arrangement? Including these emissions in NDCs is no barrier to pursuing action in these agencies. In fact having these emissions in NDCs might reduce the number of situations where states go to these agencies, as some did at the recent IMO meeting, and argue that ambitious action is not needed. That’s a tough line to hold when these sectors are part of your emissions target.

And including emissions in national climate plans will avoid scenarios, such as in the Netherlands, where governments are championing ambitious climate goals while still planning for airport expansion. That’s harder to do when the resulting emissions will be included in your emissions target.

Industry often tells governments that there is a choice between national or international action, while always favouring the latter. When faced with a choice, governments have too often opted for exiling these difficult sectors to these international agencies. However such a choice is false, as we know that only a combination of ambitious national and international action will deliver on the Paris commitment.

This idea may strike some as infeasible, but an EU Council document released to T&E shows that in establishing its 2030 climate targets, the EU has already included outbound aviation emissions in its NDC. The only question is why the EU didn’t include shipping emissions – something they can correct when the EU establishes a new long-term decarbonisation strategy in 2019.

Keeping these emissions out of national climate targets serves no purpose other than to protect these industries from more ambitious and effective climate policies. As the world looks to step up its climate ambitions, it’s no longer good enough for countries to exile these major sources of emissions – each would be top 10 emitters if they were a state – to obscure UN agencies. When countries pledge to decarbonise their economies, they must mean exactly that, with no opt-outs for high fliers and those at sea.

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