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It’s not quite time for international airlines to fly off into the sunset. Aviation image

The new UN deal on aviation emissions leaves much to be desired

Emissions from international flights - a bugbear of efforts to combat climate change - will finally be regulated under a scheme agreed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) on Thursday last week.

It’s a problem that had remained largely unaddressed by states – and airlines – since 1997, the year when essentially all nations, through the Kyoto Protocol, determined that ICAO – a United Nations agency – should deal with it.

Governments all took the view that, given jurisdictional and aircraft ownership and control issues, and the nature of the problem, ICAO was the appropriate forum to address the emissions problem. It was also a reflection of how difficult the problem was – and still is – to solve.

At the last ICAO Assembly, in 2013, states agreed that a market mechanism for international aviation was best, and that its form would be approved by the assembly this year. This 2013 agreement came just shy of 20 years since ICAO was tasked with addressing the problem. The 2016 meeting was the organisation’s 38th.

What did the assembly agree?

ICAO member states chose a global carbon offset scheme before the start of the assembly to deal with international aviation emissions. The scheme is called the CORSIA , or the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation. 

Other market-based options (more effective ones, according to general consensus) include an emissions trading scheme (ETS) – either a cap-and-trade or a baseline-and-credit scheme – or a carbon tax.

For some time it has been clear that offsetting was ICAO’s preferred mechanism. In part, it was chosen because it is less transparent and less onerous than either a carbon tax or an ETS. A tax would have been more straightforward and easier to implement.

An ETS would have made sense given that the European Union already has one in place for EU carriers. Moreover, an attempt to include non-EU carriers in the EU ETS failed a few years ago. ICAO could have used blueprints for the attempt in the lead-up to the 2016 assembly and, arguably, a better, more effective result might have ensued.

Relatively few changes were made between the final draft text and the final version that resulted from the assembly’s deliberations and private discussions between the parties.

As a result, an ICAO press conference to announce the details – unusually for such conferences, held the day before the assembly concluded – was attended by fewer than 15 journalists, and questions lasted less than 15 minutes.

How does the scheme work?

As outlined in our previous Conversation article, there are three phases to the offset scheme: a pilot phase would operate from 2021 to 2023 for states that volunteer to participate in the scheme. Much about this phase remains unclear.

An initial phase from 2024 to 2026 would then operate for states that (as with the pilot phase) voluntarily participate, and would offset using options in the assembly resolution text.

Finally, a subsequent mandatory phase would operate from 2027 – fully a decade away to 2035 – and would exempt a fair number of states on various bases. And there are further exemptions.

None of this was changed in the final resolution text.

Many weaknesses

While an advanced previous draft of the resolution asked the aviation sector to assess its share of the global carbon budget for holding warming to 1.5-2°C, such assessment was deleted from the final draft.

Now the text simply requests that ICAO:

…continue to explore the feasibility of a long term global aspirational goal for international aviation, through conducting detailed studies.

What’s more, the CORSIA only applies to international flights, which make up about 60% of aviation emissions.

Participation is also an issue. At this stage, for the first, voluntary period of the agreement, just 65 states will join. It appears that Russia and India, two of the world’s largest emitters, will not participate. Brazil’s participation is unclear.

The director general of IATA, the organisation of the world’s airlines, said:

This agreement ensures that the aviation industry’s economic and social contributions are matched with cutting-edge efforts on sustainability.

We’re not sure this is the case. Perhaps more correct is a statement from Bill Hemmings, a director at campaign group Transport & Environment:

Airline claims that flying will now be green are a myth … This deal won’t reduce demand for jet fuel one drop. Instead offsetting aims to cut emissions in other industries… Today is not mission accomplished for ICAO, Europe or industry. The world needs more than voluntary agreements.

The world also needs more than carbon offsets to address the aviation emissions problem both domestically and internationally.

The authors attended the 39th ICAO Assembly held in Montreal from 27 September to 7 October. Read their previous article here.

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