COP21 blog

Aviation has an emissions problem, and COP 21 won’t solve it

The aviation emissions problem is a significant one. Aviation is a growing source of emissions, and those emissions are largely unregulated. Emissions from aviation are increasing against a background of decreasing emissions (or, at least, emissions regulation) from many other industry sectors.

If global aviation was a country, its emissions would be ranked about seventh in the world, between Germany and South Korea on CO₂ emissions alone. Put another way, aviation’s contribution to worldwide annual emissions could be as high as 8%.

And the International Civil Aviation Organization forecasts significant further emissions growth: against a 2006 baseline a 63-83% increase by 2020 is expected, and a 290-667% increase by 2050 (without accounting for more use of biofuels). UN action on aviation emissions so far: no COP involvement.

Under the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), developed-state parties to the Protocol (including Australia) ‘shall pursue limitation or reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases … from aviation … working through the International Civil Aviation Organization’ (ICAO).

In other words, aviation is excluded from (to date) the world’s primary climate change instruments. It leaves the aviation emissions problem up to ICAO, a UN agency.

At ICAO’s triennial assembly in 2013, an agreement was reached to proceed with a roadmap towards a decision to be taken in 2016 for implementation in 2020.

ICAO resolved to make a recommendation on a global scheme, including a means to take into account the ‘special circumstances and respective capabilities’ of different nations, and the mechanisms for the implementation of such a scheme from 2020 as part of a basket of measures. These include operational improvements and development of sustainable alternative fuels.

It is an agreement to agree. If everything goes to plan, from 2020 we might see a global market-based mechanism – presumably an emissions trading scheme, although a (non-fuel) tax can’t be ruled out – covering global aviation.

But that outcome is far from guaranteed. In effect, states have agreed to agree, and to keep talking at their next major meeting next year – and nothing more.

COP 21 – aviation won’t get off the ground

Given that ICAO is tasked with addressing the aviation emissions problem, aviation is most interesting in terms of references to it in successive draft versions of the COP 21 negotiating text and related documents.

The negotiating text for the agreement to be finalised in Paris in December stood at 90 pages after the UNFCCC Bonn meeting in August and September. It was essentially a compilation of state parties’ proposals – it wasn’t really negotiated. This text was subsequently reduced to just 20 pages in a ‘non-paper’ note dated 5 October 2015 but has now expanded to 51 pages as a result of the 19-23 October Bonn UNFCCC meeting.

In that 5 October draft note aviation was excluded. In the latest draft negotiating text (from the Bonn working group dated 23 October) - Article 3, ‘Mitigation,’ clause 19 – aviation is definitely included. Unsurprisingly, the clause – as expected – refers to ICAO as the appropriate UN agency to deal with the aviation emissions problem.

The only real uncertainty for aviation emissions at COP 21 is whether the words “shall” or “should” (which currently appear in square brackets in the negotiating text) or some other word will be used in relation to reduction of aviation emissions.