International Civil Aviation Organization’s Agreement on Carbon: Fail to Rise to the Occasion or Sweet Victory?

By Rosaly Byrd-

At the beginning of October, the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) held a meeting in Montreal to address reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through the aviation sector. After two weeks of negotiations, countries agreed that a market-based mechanism to reduce these emissions would be implemented in 2020, but leaving details to be decided in 2016. The ICAO was first asked to develop a plan to reduce emissions 15 years ago with the Kyoto Protocol, and to many the outcome of this year’s meeting is a great achievement. Yet to many others, the postponement to 2016 is a failure and 2020 is too late. Emissions from the aviation sector are supposed to double by 2030 as flights from emerging economies increase, says Reuters, and various countries with large territories such as Brazil and India (also the emerging economies where flights are expected to increase) strongly resisted any form of aviation emissions control.

Furthermore, this resolution prevents individual countries from implementing any policy that reduces aviation emissions without the approval of other countries whose airlines would be involved. This was a reaction to the European Union’s announcement that if an agreement was not developed upon leaving Montreal it would implement its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) which would levy a carbon tax on all airlines entering and leavings the region beginning in early 2014. Although countries such as India, China and the U.S. saw this as a victory because it averted any taxes their airlines would have to pay on international flights into Europe, it was also seen by many EU observers as a step backwards in climate negotiations, as the bloc was ready to include aviation into their ETS.

So what does this mean for the EU’s plan to include aviation emissions into its ETS? The EU is caught without a way to significantly regulate aviation carbon emissions since the majority of emissions come from intercontinental flights (i.e. flights that would include airlines from countries outside of the EU), if it decides to comply to the non-binding resolution. As flights within the EU make up a small portion of the region’s CO2 aviation emissions, (only 30% of the UK’s total aviation emissions), a trading scheme without long international flights would be futile and insufficient.

Well, about a week after the meeting, the EU announced that they would continue to cover all airline emissions with the ETS, including both international and domestic flights, starting in January 2014, at least until a mechanism is devised to do this on the global scale. Obviously, the ICAO, along with specific countries that were opposed to this type of aviation regime, were not thrilled with the announcement, The EU responded saying that this was just an “interim solution for tackling emissions until an ICAO-developed scheme can enter into effect” and that “Europe is taking the responsibility to reduce emissions within its own airspace until the global measure begins.” It’s an exciting moment as the EU takes the reigns in this situation and decides to follow through with their plan instead of taking two steps backwards while waiting for global implementation. Although some may criticize this as undermining an international program, it’s exactly what the world needs in order to signal the importance of acting now.

Now what does this mean for the 2015 UNFCCC COP in Paris, when a universal agreement to curb emissions is supposed to be reached? If countries are having difficulty coming to an agreement with regard to aviation emissions (which constitutes around 2% of total anthropogenic global emissions), the outlook for the adoption of a substantial and effective global agreement in 2015 is dreary, but hopefully our European friends will be able to provoke action.

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