COP21 blog

Discussing the ‘success’ of limiting aviation emissions is just hot air

There are hundreds and hundreds of side events across the two weeks of the UN climate conference here in Paris. It’s often hard to choose between them. Choosing to attend the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) side event on aircraft emissions on Wednesday evening was made easier by virtue of it being the only dedicated event dealing with such emissions at the whole conference.

Notwithstanding that, there’s also a significant UN conference next year at which (so it’s said) all states will agree to the parameters of a market-based mechanism – presumably an emissions trading scheme – to address the aviation emissions problem.

Aviation emissions are currently unregulated. ICAO is the UN agency tasked under the UNFCCC to deal with the aviation’s emissions problem. I almost wished I hadn’t gone to the aviation side event.

The flyer stated that the side event would “highlight ICAO’s expectations for COP21 and will provide concrete insights into ICAO’s successful strategy and initiatives to assist the development and implementation of states’ action plans to reduce aviation emissions”.

Further, the focus was on ICAO’s “achievements and joint initiatives with other UN bodies and the aviation industry on technical, operational and market-based measures”.

So I was forewarned.

In his introductory speech, Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu, President of the Council of ICAO, referred to ICAO’s “leadership in reducing [aviation] emissions” and its “tremendous efforts” in this regard, including the development of sustainable fuels and emissions reductions through improvements in air traffic management.

Subsequent speakers, including a representative from the Air Transport Action Group, referred to “successful efforts” to address the level of aviation emissions (remember that aviation emissions are largely unregulated and are increasing, in contrast with many other industry sectors) and the necessity of ICAO as the organisation through which the problem should be resolved.

References were also made to cooperation among a range of aviation entities in order to enable thousands of flights to operate on a daily basis – presumably some sort of reference to cooperation either (a) being at the ready to help address the emissions problem, or (b) already being utilised.

The problem is that ICAO has not addressed the aviation emissions problem – and this is what COP21 didn’t hear about (among other things). Note the following:

  • At ICAO’s triennial assembly in 2013, its member states agreed to proceed with a roadmap towards a decision to be taken in 2016 for implementation in 2020 – effectively, an agreement to agree, and nothing more.

  • Air travel continues to grow by up to 4-5% on a sustained basis each year.

  • If the aviation industry was a country, it would be ranked seventh in the world for carbon emissions, between Germany and South Korea.

  • According to UN estimates, total aviation emissions will be anywhere between 290% and 667% above 2006 levels by 2050, assuming no switch to alternative fuels.

Does that sound like “successful efforts” to address the level of aviation emissions?

Rebecca Johnston contributed reporting for this blog post.

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