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  • On aviation emissions, a deal in the hand is better than two in the bush

    In the span of a week the world will learn a lot from the UN about the future of its climate policy, but unfortunately, in very contradictory ways.

    First, the UN FCCC, the UN agency for climate science, is coming out with its fifth assessment report about the state of climate science, and it will confirm with even more certainty than in 2007, when the fourth report came out, that the world is warming and that we humans are to blame.
    Second, on 4 October, ICAO, the UN agency for civil aviation, will conclude its 38th Assembly, which is likely to decide that nobody is allowed to take responsibility for a share of aviation emissions worth 4% of total human-induced climate change.
    The Assembly is supposed to be about a ‘global deal’ on aviation emissions, following Europe’s regional action to include the sector into its emissions trading system (ETS) in 2008 because of frustrations over a decade of inaction by ICAO.
    What the Assembly is really about, however, can be summarised quite neatly by an English expression: Europe is forced to give way its ‘bird in the hand’ – the ETS – for the proverbial ‘two birds in the bush’ – a future ‘global deal’ on aviation emissions.
    There are two big issues with that global deal that make it more of a hypothetical bird than anything else. First, it might not happen at all – not an unlikely outcome given ICAO’s track record of delays. Second, even if it happened, it would likely rely exclusively on ‘offsets’. Offsets are not real emissions reductions, but rather CO2 ‘credits’ gained from supposed reduction efforts somewhere else. I say ‘supposed’ because it is impossible to be sure that the same reduction would not have happened anyway. Take CO2 credits from a windfarm – how can you be sure that farm would not have been used anyway, if it would not have received CO2 credits?
    Anyway, enough about this global deal. The vast majority of people gathering in Montreal are not there primarily to achieve a global deal, but, first and foremost, to force Europe to emasculate its ETS now, and to promise some dramatic action that future politicians should be taking.
    And in that immediate action, they will likely set a very chilling precedent. One of the rather technical, but important, expected outcomes is that ICAO will say that countries can only take responsibility for emissions which take place in their own airspace. In effect, this is a veto to tackle 78% of emissions; if every country would regulate emissions in its national airspace, only 22% of CO2 emissions from aviation would be covered. The rest are emissions from overflights or overseas. Given that aviation emissions are responsible for 5% of historic global warming, the deal effectively means countries cannot address 4% of these 5%, even if they want to, like the EU does.
    There is a big difference between not formally assigning responsibility for these emissions, the current situation, and formally not assigning it, the likely outcome of the Assembly. 
    Can we imagine a better outcome? Of course we can. We have put forward ‘50/50’ as the solution. Each country takes responsibility for 50% of emissions from both inbound and outbound flights (and obviously its domestic flights too). If everyone would do this, the world logically covers 100% of emissions, not a mere 22%. We feel this is a fair, balanced and common sense solution that does not infringe on anyone’s sovereignty in any way, and has environmental integrity.

    Now that would be something – the UN’s scientists reconfirming the need for action, and the UN’s aviators acting on it a week later.