• Has ICAO not got the message or does it think it’s immune?

    The image of a group of people standing on the narrow edge of a cliff is an analogy that seems to sum up current efforts to tackle the problem of harmful emissions from aircraft. Everyone knows that someone has to make a compromise, but if they move too far, they risk pushing themselves over the cliff, perhaps along with everyone else.

    As December’s climate summit in Copenhagen draws closer, the aviation community is trying to decide how it can get away with as few concessions as possible, but enough to keep the issue of aviation and the environment ‘within the family’. In effect, this means making sure the International Civil Aviation Organisation (Icao) keeps control of aviation. It was given responsibility under the 1997 Kyoto protocol for brokering a global agreement on tackling international aviation emissions, but has done nothing in the subsequent 11 years and even ruled out most available options. Icao is the obvious expert body to have an international mandate to regulate civil aviation. But there is a risk that it will lose that responsibility. In fact there is a strong conviction within the environmental movement that, unless Icao comes up with something meaningful before December, the international community cannot tolerate more of its inactivity given the continued and inexorable rise in greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft. This is a message that needs to be reinforced, because Icao has seen many deadlines come and go, and one gets the impression that it feels the deadline of Copenhagen won’t be the final one. Nonetheless, Icao claims to be seriously addressing the issue. Its 15 ‘wise men’ plus 15 advisers (known as the Group on International Aviation Climate Change, or GIACC) held its third meeting in Montreal last month. GIACC needs to develop an action plan on aviation climate change which will be put to the Icao Council this summer and then submitted to Copenhagen as Icao’s plans to tackle climate change – only about 11 years late. But Icao has two massive difficulties. Firstly, Icao itself and the industry groups which tend to dominate it are implacably opposed to mandatory climate change measures or any measures that might curb demand for air travel.
    The airline industry sought to assure GIACC in Montreal that all was fine mate, that carbon-neutral growth for aviation from, say, 2025 would do just fine, and that biofuels were just around the corner and were set to save the day. Secondly, the UNFCCC’s principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibility, which exempts developing countries from the need to take action, presents a huge political difficulty to both Icao and the International Maritime Organisation. The two bodies are founded on the principle that any actions or measures taken should affect all states equally – in order to avoid competitive distortions. And this issue continues to bedevil the GIACC work. Environmental NGOs have concentrated on the problems that aviation causes, and the fact that it is fundamentally inequitable and damaging to global mitigation efforts for other sectors to be subject to strict emission reduction targets and economic measures to reach them, while international aviation emissions continue unabated.
    The Commission has tried to play its part by threatening unilateral EU action on shipping if no global agreement is reached by 2010. Additionally, the Commission threatened to have aviation emissions included in national emission targets (an obvious alternative but one which has eluded international agreement since well before Kyoto), but this was undermined by EU environment ministers earlier this month, when they removed this threat in its entirety from the EU Copenhagen negotiating position being developed! Logic dictates that the global community cannot allow another decade of Icao doing nothing – that it must either come up with something meaningful or the UNFCCC must place responsibility for aviation elsewhere. But with Icao’s wise men settling in to devise some ‘aspirational goals’ which Icao members might like to consider adhering to, Icao either hasn’t got the message or believes it faces no serious threat. Someone on the cliff ledge will have to move, hopefully in a way that doesn’t send everyone over the edge.