Skip to content

Assembly fails to deliver on cutting aviation’s carbon emissions

The triennal assembly of ICAO – the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation – finished last week.  The eventual emergence of a resolution on Aviation and Climate Change failed to hide deep divisions amongst the organisation’s 190 Contracting States on how to proceed.

At the opening of the meeting, both the President and the Secretary General had spoken of the need to examine more ambitious goals (going beyond the 2% per annum efficiency improvement already agreed at last year’s High-level Meeting), to develop a framework for market-based measures and to look at ways to provide assistance to developing countries.

Two weeks later, the Assembly closed having failed to deliver on all three counts, with many items relating to market-based measures (MBMs) deferred until the 38th Assembly in 2013 pending further studies.

In pursuit of more ambitious goals, the meetings could do no more than agree to strive towards the achievement of no net increase in international aviation emissions from 2020 (a goal put forward by industry) in a text that is littered with reservations from key countries.

In that period, emissions are set to grow at 3.0% to 3.5% pa – see ENDS article.

Perhaps most significantly, the Resolution makes several references to the needs, respective capabilities and responsibilities of developing countries, which, when combined, reduce the prospects of achieving tougher, globally-applied targets and measures in the near future. This was despite an effort to appeal to developing countries by stressing that goals did not attribute specific obligations on States, and the agreement of a de minimis clause that exempts countries with less than 1% of revenue tonne kilometres (RTKs) from submitting action plans.

Perhaps most significantly, the Resolution makes several references to the needs, respective capabilities and responsibilities of developing countries, which, when combined, reduce the prospects of achieving tougher, globally-applied targets and measures in the near future. This was despite an effort to appeal to developing countries by stressing that goals did not attribute specific obligations on States, and the agreement of a de minimis clause that exempts countries with less than 1% of revenue tonne kilometres (RTKs) from submitting action plans.

Only 16 States (counting the EU 27 countries as a single bloc) are above the de minimis threshold, albeit representing around 86% of international traffic in 2009. Notably, several States including  the EU, US and Australia, had tried to set tougher goals for the sector with the EU recommending a reduction of -10% below 2005 levels to be achieved by 2020. Rather than accept the weak aspirational goals contained in the Resolution, many of these States put down reservations.

So what happens next? The Resolution requests the Council to continue to explore the feasibility of a global MBM scheme through studies, but it is now a matter for individual States to work out the most appropriate measures to deliver their contribution to the goals, and indeed, whether they wish to take more ambitious actions prior to 2020.

The AEF attended the Assembly as part of the International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation (ICSA), together with representatives from Transport & Environment (T&E) and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

The AEF and T&E have issued the following press release.

Environmental groups statement on the outcome of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Assembly
- EU aviation emissions trading plan safer, but weaker after international talks; additional measures now needed
- International aviation community fails to agree carbon cuts; proposes decade of unrestricted emissions growth

Monday 11 October 2010, For immediate release

The future inclusion of the aviation sector in Europe’s Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS) may have moved a step closer last week as a result of international talks.  But the scheme’s effectiveness will be weaker as a result of European concessions at talks which also ended any hope of credible global measures to cut aviation’s climate impact in the foreseeable future according to Transport & Environment (T&E) and the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF).

The EU entered negotiations at the ICAO Assembly, which concluded in Montreal last Friday, calling for a global cut in aviation emissions of 10% by 2020, based on 2005 emissions levels, as agreed by all EU member states in the run-up to the Copenhagen climate conference.  Aviation is currently responsible for 4.9% of global man-made climate change.

But EU ambition was cut short by an American-led initiative to maintain the wording of a 2007 ICAO resolution that called for ‘mutual agreement’ whereby every single state affected by policies such as the EU-ETS would have to agree to be included; effectively killing such schemes.

The final ‘resolution’ passed by this year’s Assembly did not contain such strong language on ‘mutual agreement’ but EU diplomacy to protect the ETS plan came at a heavy price.

The resolution states that airlines from countries with international aviation activity below 1 percent of the global total should be exempt from moves to restrict carbon emissions within the aviation sector.  The EU stated that it would ‘engage constructively’ in discussion about these exemptions with regard to the EU-ETS and has since declared that it could also review whether emissions from inbound flights would be covered by the scheme.  Excluding inbound flights to the EU would cut the emissions covered by the system by 40%.

Bill Hemmings of Transport & Environment (T&E) said: “The EU has paid a heavy price to weaken opposition to its plan to include aviation in the ETS. It is obvious that additional measures will be needed to get spiralling aviation emissions growth under control.  The EU should start with a kerosene tax and VAT on tickets.”

The fight over ‘mutual agreement’ cast a heavy shadow over the negotiations as talks surrounding global measures to cut aviation emissions dragged on fruitlessly.

The triennial Assembly failed once again to produce a single measure to actually reduce global emissions from the aviation sector.  Instead the final ‘resolution’ called for ‘Carbon Neutral Growth (CNG)’.  But that concept allows for aviation emissions to grow unabated for the 23 years since Kyoto, and only then be ‘offset’ voluntarily above their 2020 level by emissions cuts in other industrial sectors.  The Kyoto Protocol called for aviation emissions to be ‘limited’ or ‘reduced’, i.e. within the sector.

The final resolution also states that climate commitments for aviation are ‘aspirational’ i.e. non binding, with no obligations on individual countries, let alone penalties for failure.

But even the CNG plan, which amounts to business-as-usual, was too much for some negotiators.  The Chinese representative called the plan an attack on the human rights of his country’s citizens.  CNG, along with almost every aspect of the assembly’s ‘resolution’, was also subject to an unprecedented number of ‘reservations’ whereby states declare that they do not feel bound by the decisions.

Hemmings commented:  “The Assembly represented a race to the bottom to reach consensus at almost any cost, followed by a descent into farce as many countries distanced themselves from various aspects of the resolution.  ICAO’s irrelevance grows along with emissions from the world’s most energy and carbon intensive form of transport.”

”As a forum for agreeing, let alone implementing, global environmental targets for aviation emissions, ICAO is clearly not fit for purpose, its 13 year record of failure shows that.  The fact that ICAO members repeated their calls this year for the institution to remain in charge looks absurd, and completely out of touch.”