• The emperor has no clothes – but who is willing to say so?

    A fascinating but frightening game of bluff is being played with global attempts to curb aviation’s contribution to global warming.

    It is the equivalent of the emperor standing up naked and challenging all the on-lookers to say that he is wearing no clothes.

    The last 12 years since the Kyoto Protocol was signed have been hugely disappointing in the field of aviation. But once it became clear two years ago that the EU was going to put aircraft emissions into its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), and the Bali climate meeting called for a more ambitious set of reduction commitments than Kyoto to be agreed at this year’s Copenhagen climate summit, the feeling was that aviation was under pressure to do something. There followed a battle within the aviation sector as to how far the industry needed to go to satisfy the parties at Copenhagen and keep control of aviation’s climate impact within the International Civil Aviation Organisation (Icao).

    That battle took the form of Icao establishing a group of 15 ‘wise men’ (the Group on International Aviation and Climate Change, or ‘Giacc’) from a representative group of countries. The 15 were asked to draw up an action plan on aviation climate change. That final action plan – effectively a draft of Icao’s final offering to Copenhagen – was revealed earlier this month.

    If one wants to be kind about it, it is honest in its admission that there was very little consensus, and that certain states did not honour their agreements under the Kyoto protocol. But in effect it is nothing but a bunch of empty promises.

    Icao promised an ‘aggressive’ plan of action to tackle climate change – all it has come up with is a set of ‘aspirational goals’ with no commitments. The wording of it admits to the ongoing conflicts within Icao between developed states wanting global action and developing countries (led by China) who, citing the UNFCCC principle of differentiated responsibility, insist that only developed countries need to reduce international aviation emissions.

    The 15 also published a basket of optional market-based measures for states to choose from, but acknowledged that there was still no agreement on how cross-border measures could be undertaken. So a principal objective of the group, first raised in 2007, has still not been addressed.

    Where does this leave the process? It seems a blatant invitation to the UNFCCC to take responsibility for aviation away from Icao (and shipping from the IMO) and to set emission reduction targets – and take over responsibility for developing emission reduction measures.

    This so-called ‘action plan’ is no credible basis for the Copenhagen agreement to continue to entrust Icao with responsibility for reducing aviation emissions.

    The question now is: will the UNFCCC see that the emperor is wearing no clothes and take over this vitally important responsibility?