Shipping shows aviation that climate action can happen

July 20, 2011

Opinion By Jos Dings - T&E Director This edition of the Bulletin is somewhat special. You will have seen it is the 200th, after exactly 20 years of operation. But it is also special because it is one of the few in which both aviation and shipping take centre stage. And because a divide between them is emerging. It is becoming increasingly clear that, while in the shipping sector the global community can actually take occasional steps forward, in aviation it is still the same old sad story of trying to stop progress from happening. Or even worse, trying to reverse it.

[mailchimp_signup][/mailchimp_signup]As this month’s Bulletin’s lead article says, the shipping community in the UN’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has taken a historical step by agreeing that new ships built in the future should become 10%, 20% and eventually 30% more fuel efficient. This is the first globally binding climate measure ever adopted.

Debate was fierce and difficult but out in the open, for every attendee to see and follow. Industry is fairly sanguine about it and sees the move, at least partly, as an opportunity to clean up its act. And virtually at the same time, the European Commission has finally put out its proposal for low-sulphur ship fuel standards, agreed in 2008 by the same IMO, to become part of EU law. These standards will cut sulphur pollution by around 80%.

Contrast that with what the aviation sector and Icao, the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation, are doing. On 6 July we had the spectacle of three American airlines arguing at the European Court of Justice against the inclusion of aviation in the Emissions Trading Scheme. Although the financial consequences are modest, they argued that it is ‘inconceivable’ and ‘absurd’ that Europe is trying to reduce aviation emissions outside its own airspace. This neatly summarises the sequence of reactions in the aviation sector: denial, obstruction, threats, and unholy alliances of airlines and their governments.

The airlines’ demand that non-EU carriers should be exempt from the scheme almost makes me laugh more than cry – if there is one bedrock principle of Icao, it is that carriers from all countries should be treated equally. Much less visibly, industry is also doing its best to scupper the only Icao climate action left – an attempt to properly measure and regulate the fuel efficiency of aircraft. It is putting forward impossible proposals, and it says no other proposals are acceptable.

Why this big difference between IMO and Icao? One explanation is legal – the IMO’s green technology rules can be adopted, if necessary, by a two-thirds majority instead of unanimity as is the case in Icao. Although a real vote almost never happens in the IMO, this certainly disciplines people to an extent. But another explanation is definitely cultural. Shipping is literally and figuratively more down-to-earth than aviation.

My advice: take your head out of the clouds, dip a toe in the water, and feel what it is like. Maybe then you will get a perspective on how to put both of the world’s international transport modes on a greener footing.

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