Following its annual meeting in South Africa on Monday, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said it will ask governments to create a system through which airlines would offset any increase in emissions after 2020 by buying carbon credits from projects that reduce emissions in other sectors.
The proposal is meant to give governments that are parties to the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) a blueprint for a global agreement.
It is also a move to prevent the European Union from applying a law that would force airlines to pay for each tonne of carbon dioxide they emit on flights to and from EU airports through the Emissions Trading System. Implementation of the law was postponed in 2012 after a global outcry.
Under IATA's proposed offsetting system, either air carriers or countries would have to purchase credits to cover each tonne of carbon emitted over a set baseline.
"The worldwide airline industry sent a strong message that it is moving forward with its commitments and has offered governments a proposed way forward," said Nancy Young, vice president for environmental affairs for the lobby group Airlines for America, whose members also belong to IATA.
85% of world market
The airlines that agreed to the proposal represent about 85% of global commercial air traffic.
Some environmentalists doubted that governments will be ready to ink a deal in time for ICAO's triennial general assembly in Montreal, which starts on 24 September.
"The question is whether it's just a resolution or will IATA now put their undoubted muscle behind wavering governments, starting with the United States," said Bill Hemmings, aviation manager at Brussels-based group Transport and Environment.
Officials from 17 countries tapped to work on the global agreement have been bogged down by issues such as whether states or airlines would be pay for emissions, and whether less-developed countries should have different goals.
Some green groups totally rejected IATA's approach, arguing that it will not lead to real emission reductions.
"Only a cap-and-trade scheme with a stringent cap and a limit on the use of offsets will create sufficient incentives for essential emission reductions," said Eva Filzmoser, director of Carbon Market Watch, a watchdog group in Brussels.