Member states will conduct a last-ditch offensive on a proposal to limit C02 gases emitted by aircraft during the International Civil Aviation Organisation conference in Montreal opening on Tuesday (27 September).
The 191 members of the UN body responsible for air transport are expected to adopt a global market-based mechanism to achieve carbon-neutral growth for the aviation sector from 2020 onwards.
The number of passengers flying each year is expected to double by 2035, surpassing 6.5 billion travellers.
Aviation emissions, currently around 2% of the total gases produced by the population, are not covered by UN targets to limit global warming.
The preparatory talks between the countries delayed the goal of having a mandatory mechanism in place by 2021. Instead, it was postponed to 2027.
Moreover, NGOs complained that the system is not based on real reductions but carbon offsetting, which would cover the new emissions with ‘green projects’ in developing nations.
“I am not in love with the draft, there could be more ambition in it,” Commissioner for Transport, Violeta Bulc, told a group of reporters days before the ICAO General Assembly. For Bulc, who led the talks on behalf of the member states, the text on the table right now is “the lowest common denominator, and therefore we want to improve it”.
Member states, together with partners including the US, have redoubled their efforts to add as many countries as possible to the group of economies who it is hoped will adopt the mechanism.
As a result, on 24 September, the transport ministers of the G7 expressed “their intention to participate” in the mechanism from 2021 and “strongly encourage other states to do so”. Japan was the last G7 country to confirm it would join.
Other economies with large air carriers including Qatar are “leaning towards” joining the group of early adopters, EU officials explained.
Bulc travelled to Montreal on Monday (26 September) and scheduled three intense days of meetings to drum up support for the ‘high ambition coalition’ in favour of “an ambitious and robust” global market-based mechanism.
The Commissioner will meet with the representatives of India, China, Brazil and Russia, among others. These nations are seen as playing a potentially decisive role in reaching an ambitious deal.
The two red lines for Europe are the inclusion of a governance system to ensure that projects can be claimed only once; and a UN-based credit system to avoid any potential risk of fraud.
Bulc also highlighted the presence of a three-year review mechanism that could help to increase member state efforts in the future.
However, the Commission declined to reveal what would happen with the EU’s own emission trading system (ETS), regarded as a success story despite initial scepticism.
While the ETS has been in place for Europe’s domestic flights since 2012, the EU decided to “stop the clock” and did not apply it to flights connecting Europe with third countries due to the protests of foreign companies.
The 28 countries agreed back then they would decide what to do with the ETS once the ICAO had adopted a global mechanism to limit emissions.
But MEPs and NGOs found ICAO’s draft proposal ‘shocking’.
A group of 90 criticised the draft text, because they believe it would “undermine our ability to limit warming to the agreed UN aim of well below 2° C, aiming for 1.5° C”.
The NGOs warned that offsetting “is widely considered a false solution to climate change because it does not reduce emissions, but merely shift emissions from one sector to another”.
Transport and Environment (T&E), a green NGO, praised the EU’s existing ETS for helping to deliver actual emissions reductions, saying it enjoys a high degree of compliance and provides “greater certainty” compared to the ICAO’s market-based scheme.
“Europe should be proud of setting the global benchmark, and never replace it with something inferior that is open to bogus offset programmes,” said Andrew Murphy from T&E.
A senior EU official commented that the discussions on how to merge the ETS and the ICAO system did not start yet since the Commission wants to wait and see the results of the conference. Otherwise, it would be a “mess”, the official confessed.
It has been difficult to reach global agreement to cut CO2 emissions in the aviation sector. In 2012, with no deal having been made, the EU included aviation emissions in its Emissions Trading Scheme. The decision sparked a backlash from the industry and foreign countries, like China and India who refused to comply with the scheme and threatened the EU with commercial retaliation measures.
The EU’s temporary halt to the ETS was intended to allow time for the ICAO to devise a global alternative. But in the meantime, international airlines which bitterly attacked the cap and trade scheme at every turn will be exempted from it, while intra-European airlines, which had supported it, will not.
As a whole, the aviation industry continues to fiercely resist market-based measures as anything more than a stopgap, advocating instead a formula of technological and operational improvements - plus the wider use of biofuels - to reduce emissions.
Some of these elements are part of the EU’s new aviation strategy. For all emissions that cannot be reduced through these elements, a global market-based set of measures will be used to offset the remaining emissions in order to meet the targets set by the aviation industry.
- 27 September - 7 October: ICAO General Assembly