New research fuels global ‘ETS for airlines’ idea

  

Airlines will only approach the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)’s goal of ‘carbon neutral growth’ from 2020 with a global market-based measure such as an emission trading system (ETS), says a new study by a leading atmospheric scientist.

The report, ‘Bridging the aviation CO2 emissions gap: why emissions trading is needed’ by David Lee of Manchester Metropolitan University explored three different scenarios for cutting emissions: improved technology, accelerated development of biofuels, and the application of carbon pricing models.   

It found that by 2050, improved technology would raise carbon emissions to 1,638 billion tonnes of carbon per year (from 391 million tones in 2006), while greater use of biofuels would cut emissions by just 5%. Carbon pricing was the only option that would erase the ‘emissions gap’.

“Given that the current regional MBMs extended to 2050 achieved the single largest [emissions] reduction, an operational and effective global scheme would evidently achieve even greater reductions,” Professor Lee concluded. MBMs refer to market-based measures.

Lee is an advisor to the UK government, a researcher for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a former specialist researcher for ICAO, and the principal scientist and head of atmospheric processes for the G7.

The paper comes as high level ICAO talks on a global agreement to tackle airlines emissions appear stuck on the runway, despite an EU decision to “stop the clock” on including aviation within its ETS for a year.

This month, ICAO’s Council and High-Level Advisory Group on International Aviation and Climate Change will be meeting to devise a resolution for addressing global emissions that can be put to the body’s triennial assembly in September.

ICAO’s advisory group is debating measures such as: a global target, an implementation date, the emissions trading or carbon offsetting nature of any scheme, how revenues raised should be spent, and responsibilities allocated.

Groans by greens

But little progress has yet been made, with a recent US proposal to exclude time spent flying over international waters eliciting groans from environmentalists.

The US idea would only cover around a quarter of aviation emissions and falls far short of the EU’s plan which obliged all airlines to pay a carbon fee for the entire fight if arriving or departing from EU airports.

Meanwhile, the airline industry continues to fly the standard of biofuels plus improved technology and operational improvements, with market mechanisms only constituting a “temporary gap-filling measure”.

“We fully expect that technology, operations and infrastructure measures alone will provide the long-term solution for aviation’s sustainable growth,” Tony Tyler, chief executive of the International Air Transport Association, said on 26 February.

The ICAO meeting this month is supposed to be considering three market-based measures: carbon offsetting, carbon offsetting with a revenue-generating component, and a fully global ETS.

Devil in the details

“For any of the options, the devil will be in the details of implementation,” Tyler warned, adding that the airlines would vigorously remind governments of their concerns about competitiveness.

On the ground though, environmentalists will equally be reminding the ICAO that it was charged with limiting or reducing carbon emissions in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and that its assembly subsequently recommended implementing regional and local emissions trading in 2001 and 2004.

Bill Hemmings of the green campaign group Transport and Environment said that, following the new report, the ICAO needed to face up to its responsibilities this year and agree a global measure. 

“There can be no further excuses,” he said. “IATA and the American carriers’ ‘Airlines 4 America’ need to accept and urgently embrace carbon pricing.”

Positions: 

Tim Johnson, the director of the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF), a UK-based environmental group, said: “Lee’s figures demonstrate that the EU ETS, if extended to 2050, will have a measurable impact on reducing global aviation emissions – and it should be protected until an agreement to implement global carbon pricing is reached. The European Union has ‘stopped the clock’ for a year to give room for ICAO to act. The ICAO Council and High Level Group are now in the spotlight. Those states and parts of industry opposing a global agreement at ICAO need to explain how their plans can achieve the stated goals given Prof. Lee’s analysis.”

Timeline: 
  • March 2013: ICAO Council meeting
  • 30 April 2013: Deadline for global airlines to surrender their carbon allowances to the EU's ETS or face legal action
  • June 2013: ICAO Council meeting
  • Autumn 2013: Triannual ICAO assembly meeting at which an alternative market-based measure could be agreed
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