Having your cake and trying to eat it too - international aviation emissions and historical responsibility

This Commentary by Bill Hemmings was first published by Reuters Point Carbon.

Developing countries argue that action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions should start with developed countries because they have the greatest historical responsibility for generating CO2 emissions and thus causing the bulk of global warming. At the recent abortive round of deliberations of the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) High Level Group, these arguments came to the fore again. During the discussions to find consensus around global action to address aviation’s contribution to climate change, China, India and Brazil revived old arguments that they have no responsibility to act, not even at differentiated levels, because of these historical issues enshrined in the global climate negotiations.

Historic responsibility for aviation’s CO2 emissions is a rather different story compared to who burnt the most coal back in 1850. Aviation is a relatively young industry – the Wright Brothers’ first flight was only in 1903, the first commercial flight in 1914 and the first airline, KLM, was not founded until 1919.  Significant international air travel really only began as   the 1960s progressed with the Boeing 707’s multi-stop transatlantic flights. Mass air travel took off in the 1970s with Boeing 747 non-stop intercontinental flights. There are no emissions data available for this period, but in 2010 ICAO released RTK (Revenue Tonne Kilometre) data, a measure of commercial aviation activity, by country for the period 1974-2009. RTK can be regarded as a fair proxy for fuel burn, and thus emissions. If we rank countries by cumulative RTK from 1974 to 2009, we get a pretty neat picture of “historical” responsibility in international aviation.

RANK

COUNTRY

% share of emissions

       USA

17.04%

2

       UK

8.29%

3

       Germany

6.72%

4

       Japan

5.67%

5

      France

5.04%

6

      China

4.40%

7

      Singapore

4.23%

8

     Netherlands

4.07%

9

    Republic of Korea

4.05%

10

       Australia

2.55%

11

       Canada

2.24%

12

       United Arab             Emirates

1.92%

13

       Thailand

1.85%

14

       Italy

1.81%

15

       Switzerland

1.64%

16

        Spain

1.61%

17

       Malaysia

1.45%

18

  Russian Federation

1.23%

19

       Brazil

1.19%

20

     Scandinavia

1.09%

 

If we look at total CO2 emissions in the period 1850-2002, of the top 20 emitters only four are regarded as developing countries: China, India, Brazil and South Africa. However, if we consider international aviation activity 1974-2009, the picture looks rather different. Here we find seven developing countries, namely: China, Singapore, Republic of Korea, UAE, Thailand, Malaysia and Brazil. Overall, and for the same period, developing countries account for 33% of all aviation activity.

By region, Europe is by far the largest emitter historically (38%) followed by Asia/Oceania (29%) and North America (20%).

 

 


One might well understand that with a 38% share of “historical emissions”, Europe has an obligation to act if the world has not. The same can certainly be said of the US, which is the world’s single largest aviation emitter accounting in 2010 for 28% of global aviation emissions. But, when it comes to international aviation, it is also clear from the graphs that Asia Pacific has a significant responsibility to act as well. The numbers are not surprising. Besides China and Hong Kong, there are other large aviation hubs in the region including South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, the Gulf States and the Philippines, which all have significant aviation carbon footprints. The national carriers of these countries have been at the forefront of pioneering long-haul travel over the past 40 years. Singapore itself was the largest “developing country” international emitter in 2010, just ahead of China.

Aviation accounts for 5% of historical global warming and its climate change impact continues to grow fast - it would be the 7th largest emitter in the world if it were a country. For these developing-nations’ airlines and their governments to argue that they don´t need to act on aviation´s emissions, hiding behind notions of historical responsibility relating to what happened in the Victorian era, is political nonsense and an affront to common sense. 

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