USA holds key to global deal on airline emissions

By John Parnell

President Obama has his second opportunity to demonstrate his administration’s commitment to addressing climate change this week when new proposals to combat aviation emissions are discussed at a UN body.

Obama promised to tackle climate change in his election victory speech but there were few signs of this shift in Doha at the UN climate change negotiations.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is currently meeting to begin work on a proposal to reduce the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions and the US is in a position to clear some of the hurdles to such a deal and efforts elsewhere to cut the sector’s climate impact.

“There’s an unprecedented opportunity for the Obama administration to deliver a deal in ICAO,” Keya Chatterjee, senior director, international climate policy at WWF-US told Reuters. “It’s up to some of his senior climate officials to get to start making a difference.”

ICAO will hold its three-yearly general assembly in the autumn and is under pressure to put a mechanism in place during that session. If it fails to do so, the next available opportunity in 2016 falls after the 2015 deadline that the UN climate change body is targeting for agreement on the rules of a global deal to reduce emissions.

There is a general agreement that ICAO and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) should handle emissions from aviation and shipping respectively. This was reinforced at the most recent UN climate change negotiations in Doha.

ICAO has been criticised for taking 10 years to discuss the matter with very little tangible process.

The aviation sector is growing placing more urgency on its attempts to cut emissions. (Source: Flickr/Simon_sees)

Aviation emissions account for less than 3% of worldwide greenhouse gases but the sector is growing will more and more flights annually. This, combined with the increased warming effect of gases when emitted high in the atmosphere, makes them an important area to tackle.

The EU included international aviation in its own Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) last year. The decision meant any flight landing or taking off in the EU had to account for 15% of its emissions on the ETS, even if it was a non-EU airline.

This angered India, China, Russia and the US, with the latter establishing a law to make it illegal for US airlines to comply with the EU request. Last month the EU said it would suspend the inclusion of international flights in the scheme on the condition that, a global deal to tackle emissions was in place by the end of this year.

“If a global solution can’t be found, US airlines face the dilemma of choosing whose law to break. And European airlines’ competitiveness could be eroded if they are the only ones left paying the carbon emissions charge,” said Roger de Peyrecave, partner, PwC.

The industry is looking to make its own improvements and frequently points to the improvements in the fuel per passenger mile that it has made over the years as airplane designs and navigation improve.

“Efficiency improvements of 1.7% [the average since 2000] won’t be enough. Governments will need to get behind this or airlines will miss their own targets. Ultimately, they will need to accelerate advances in fuel efficiency beyond business as usual and scale-up biofuel production.”

“Coordination on cross-border issues such as international Air Traffic Management, carbon pricing and incentives for the production of biofuel will be critical,” said Peyrecave adding that at least some of the revenues raised from new regulations should be reinvested in the cash-strapped industry to help pay for new technological advancements.

A trade dispute side plot has also emerged as a possible consequence of ICAO’s failure to produce a global deal acceptable to all.

A $14bn order from China for Airbus planes was put on hold during the dispute with the EU. Once the bloc had backed down, Airbus China said it was confident the business as usual scenario would prevail.

ICAO is considering four options, two based on emissions trading, whereby airlines are given a limited supply of emissions and trade permits according to whether they exceed or fall short of that target. Two are based on offsetting, which would see airlines fund projects in the developing world to reduce carbon emissions equal their own output.

This could prove to be a boon to the UN’s struggling Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) offsetting scheme.

“It is likely that carbon offsets will feature, at least as an interim solution. We could see offset demand from the aviation sector growing to more than 100 megatonnes of CO2 per year by 2020, which would provide a significant boost to the carbon markets,” said Jonathan Grant, Director, PwC. “This is more than one-quarter of the CERs issued in 2012.”

“The Clean Development Mechanism CDM has been in the doldrums throughout 2012 since the economic downturn in Europe. Progress in Doha on the idea of a CDM reserve bank or fund was limited, but this could rescue the CDM,” said Grant.

“At €10 per tonne of CO2, the cost of offsetting carbon would amount to less than 5% of a tonne of aviation fuel, making this one of the most cost-effective options for the industry.”

Video: Thierry Nowaczyk of Airbus describes the most sustainable way to fly

Read more on: Aviation | EU | Road | | |