Aviation and Climate Change, all Talk and no Action?

Aviation and Climate Change, all Talk and no Action?

The impact of international aviation on climate change is a topical issue. Despite appearances, the last resolution of the Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organisation on this subject may be seen as a clear defeat for the European Union.

On October 4th 2013, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) concluded the 38th Session of its General Assembly in Montréal with a new resolution dealing with the impact of international air transport on climate change. More specifically, it was agreed to adopt a market-based measure (MBM) to address emissions from international civil aviation.

This agreement, on a highly controversial and topical issue, concerns not only the sustainable development of international transport but also the future of our planet. And the EU, which initially took a very strong standpoint, seems to have lost its teeth along the way, but does not want to admit it.

The EU rules the air, it thinks

“Despite its humiliating defeat, the European Commission welcomed the agreement reached”. This conclusion, reached in a recent article, comes as a surprise to those who have followed the EU’s earlier actions in this field. For almost 10 years, the EU has tried to take a leadership position in addressing the reduction of the impact of international civil aviation on climate change. The landmark Directive 2008/101/EC of 19 November 2008, amending Directive 2003/87/EC, boldly included all non-European carriers, operating flights from and to the EU, in the European emissions trading scheme (EU ETS).

But political, diplomatic and even commercial disputes between the EU and a number of influential third countries have forced the European Parliament to “stop the clock”. Its decision defers the enforcement of Directive 2008/101 “in order to facilitate progress and provide momentum” at the global level and to increase the chances for the General Assembly of ICAO to reach a global agreement on the subject.

ICAO: a historic milestone or loss of credibility?

This global agreement was apparently reached a few weeks ago in Montréal. But before claiming victory, read the small print: the member States of ICAO have only agreed to work for the future adoption of a global MBM: “The Assembly (...) decides to develop a global MBM scheme for international aviation, taking into account the work called for” and “requests the Council (…) to (…) report the result of the work for decision by the 39th Session of the Assembly.” So it seems that the world must be patient, and wait at least three more years for the adoption of an MBM on the reduction of emissions in international air transport.

The results of the recent General Assembly can therefore be interpreted in different manners. One can follow the enthusiastic point of view of the ICAO Council President Roberto Gonzalez who asserts that “this MBM agreement is an historic milestone for air transport and for the role of multilateralism in addressing global climate change”. But others may disagree and, like Shelby White of the Flying Clean Alliance, claim that “ICAO has lost what credibility it had left as a forum for meaningful action on aviation climate pollution”.

Meanwhile in the EU

The inclusion of a paragraph in the agreement that would allow the EU to unilaterally apply its emissions trading scheme to foreign carriers was removed during the negotiations. But despite this apparent defeat, the EU seems to be claiming victory. Indeed, according to the Climate Change Commissioner Connie Hedegaard, “the EU’s hard work has paid off”. Admittedly, in the same breath, she adds that the Member States and the European Parliament still have to decide “the way forward with the EU ETS”.

In this regard, it did not take long for the European Commission to propose to charge foreign airlines for emissions only over European airspace, predictably drawing the ire of airline groups. The debate is therefore still ongoing but, whatever the outcome, sustainable aviation is fast becoming a huge challenge, so the European and global regulators had better get their act together!

1 Comment

Sagar Singamsetty

Good overview, Thomas. Also agree that for the moment the uncertainty around the future of ETS for aviation remains...

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