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Why aviation needs to be part of any agreement at the Paris Climate Conference

26th November, 2015

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is holding COP21 in Paris from the 30th November. Since 1992, the UNFCCC has been the venue for negotiating legally binding agreements on the reduction of carbon emissions. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 was the first legally binding agreement signed by most, but not all, industrialised countries to reduce carbon emissions.

While Kyoto was a step forward, national commitments to reduce emissions did not include international aviation and shipping emissions. Instead, the protocol requested states to pursue the limitation and reduction of these increasing sectoral emissions through the appropriate UN body. In the case of aviation, this is the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). The protocol came into effect in 2005 and covered 2008-2012.

With the Kyoto Protocol coming to an end, the COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 was intended to develop a new legally binding document. However, as we know — the Copenhagen COP was disappointing with no real binding agreement established. Copenhagen did, however, recognise the need for states to keep the global temperature from rising over 2°C.

This 2°C limit has become integral to the framing of emissions and climate change mitigation and is seen as the threshold for avoiding dangerous climate change. Experts advise that emissions must be reduced collectively by between 40-70% by 2050 to keep the temperature increase under 2°C. However, despite these obvious warnings by scientists and NGOs, aviation and shipping continue to grow unchecked while contributing a combined 5% of global carbon emissions.

ICAO has responded by establishing a goal of carbon neutral growth from 2020 and NGOs are currently engaged in the work programmes aiming to deliver effective policies for the use of alternative fuels, the introduction of an aircraft CO2 standard, and measures using the carbon markets.

Dr Alice Bows-Larkin of the Tyndell Centre highlights that these policies to reduce aviation emissions aren’t adequate for the sector to play its part in meeting a 2°C world and must focus on controlling passenger demand. The sluggish progress of proposing emissions policies has led to the growth of global aviation and shipping emissions by 78-83% from 1990 to 2010. Comparatively, other sectors grew at an average of 40%.

With aviation sector emissions expected to increase by 270% by 2050, it is clear that these sectors must be acknowledged in the drafted text for Paris to put pressure on ICAO to act and tackle aviation’s growing emissions. In early drafts, the Paris text called for an ambitious target for aviation and shipping emissions, and a levy on tickets to raise money for climate finance.  An overall emissions target for aviation would demonstrate that international aviation is expected to make an urgent and fair contribution to meeting the 2°C target. The final draft text before the conference contained the following text on aviation, with the alternative being no text at all:

“Option 1: Parties [shall][should][other] pursue limitation or reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation and marine bunker fuels, working through the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Maritime Organization, respectively, with a view to agreeing concrete measures addressing these emissions, including developing procedures for incorporating emissions from international aviation and marine bunker fuels into low-emission development strategies. Option 2: No text.” (draft agreement text, page 12)

While it is positive that aviation and maritime shipping emissions are included, the text needs to send a strong message to ICAO that it must act to actually limit and reduce aviation’s growing carbon emissions. Without pushing for ambition on tackling aviation emissions, achieving the internationally agreed 2°C target looks some way off being a reality.

Image credit: Ma.sum via Flickr