• Fight to reduce air travel’s impact made harder at global aviation summit

    European plans to tackle air transport’s climate impact moved a step closer, but also risked being watered down, at this month’s general assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). The European Union appeared to signal that the terms of aviation’s entry into the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) might be weakened, and the EU’s transport commissioner even talked about exempting incoming flights to Europe from the scheme. Yet these concessions allowed the EU to successfully fight off an American-led attempt to stop emissions trading in aviation from happening.

    The fight over aviation’s entry into the EU ETS somewhat overshadowed what was supposed to be the main environmental business of the assembly: a global agreement on tackling aviation’s contribution to climate change. The EU delegation went to the three-yearly ICAO assembly in Montreal calling for a global cut in aviation emissions of 10% between 2005 and 2020, but the assembly adopted a disputed final resolution lacking any meaningful commitment to tackle aviation’s environmental impact.

    Yet much discussion was dominated by whether non-EU nations could be forced to buy emissions permits when aviation involving EU airports becomes subject to emissions trading in 2012. An American-led initiative sought to retain a 2007 ICAO resolution that included the concept of ‘mutual agreement’, which effectively gives non-EU governments the right to refuse to pay for permits.

    The final resolution did not retain a requirement for mutual agreement, but it does potentially weaken the EU’s plans for emissions trading for airlines. It states that airlines from countries with less than a 1% share of the global aviation market should be exempt from moves to restrict carbon emissions from aircraft. The EU’s ETS legislation does exempt a limited number of airlines from the scheme if their service to Europe is infrequent, but the exemption list proposed in ICAO’s final resolution is much wider and would cover airlines from well over 100 countries, including such key players as Mexico, Brazil, and South Africa. Unsurprisingly the EU lodged a ‘reservation’ against the ICAO list.

    But concern surrounds comments made by the EU’s transport commissioner Siim Kallas. EU legislation on aviation in the ETS has a clause that allows the EU to waive the need for airlines to buy emissions permits for flights into the EU, if the airlines are taking comparable action elsewhere to minimise the damage caused by those flights. Kallas hinted at a post-assembly news conference that the EU might be willing to let any measures taken in the US to reduce aviation emissions be used as a reason for waiving the need for permits on incoming flights. ‘We are ready to negotiate and talk about these issues,’ he said, adding that there was ‘enough flexibility’ in the legislation to reach agreement with the USA. But this fuelled speculation that he was about to make political compromises.

    ICAO was given responsibility in the 1997 Kyoto protocol for ‘limiting and reducing’ aviation’s climate impact. Yet instead of seeking to reduce emissions, the final resolution agreed to ‘carbon-neutral growth (CNG) by 2020’, a concept T&E dismissed as a sham. This is because it effectively allows airlines to do nothing for another 10 years, and then, in 2021, buy greenhouse gas offsets to pay for emissions cuts not in aviation but in other sectors. Moreover, all commitments in the resolution were specifically acknowledged to be voluntary.

    T&E policy officer Bill Hemmings, who attended the ICAO assembly on behalf of a coalition of NGOs, said: ‘This is a descent into farce, as many countries distanced themselves from parts of the resolution. ICAO’s irrelevance is growing as fast as emissions from air transport. As a forum for agreeing – let alone implementing – global action to tackle aviation’s environmental impact, it is clearly not fit for purpose. Its 13 years of failure show that.’

    Global fuel consumption by aircraft is expected to increase by between 3% and 3.5% a year over the next few years, according to a report presented to the ICAO assembly. It says passenger traffic will grow by an average of 4.8% per year until 2036.