Planes and ships escape scrutiny in bottom-up climate regime

International aviation and shipping are not mentioned in the Lima call for climate action, despite growing emissions

Airline and shipping emissions are set to grow while other sectors face tigher regulations (Pic: Flickr/Mercedes Dayanara)

Airline and shipping emissions are set to grow while other sectors face tighter regulations
(Pic: Flickr/Mercedes Dayanara)

By Megan Darby

The new international approach to tackling climate change, reinforced at this month’s Lima talks, counts on national governments responding to peer pressure.

Some are optimistic this heralds a race for the top; others argue it allows rich countries to duck their historic responsibilities.

However you rate the chances this bottom-up approach will spur countries into more ambitious action, it does nothing to curb emissions outside national boundaries.

International shipping and aviation, with substantial and growing emissions, fall through the gaps.

Policy measures to address these sectors are “woefully inadequate”, warns Alice Bows-Larkin, researcher at the Tyndall Centre, Manchester, in the journal Climate Policy.

She tells RTCC: “If other sectors are managing to do something about their emissions, aviation and shipping are going to stick out.”

Africa-sized emissions

Planes and ships travelling across national borders emitted 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2012, International Energy Agency data shows.

That is equivalent to the whole of Africa’s output from burning fossil fuels.

The overarching goal of UN climate talks is to prevent dangerous levels of global warming, which is set at a threshold of 2C above pre-industrial levels.

Under the Lima agreement, even the poorest countries are encouraged to put forward national plans for dealing with climate change – albeit measures to limit emissions are likely to be conditional on support from the developed world.

The only mention of international transport comes in an annex, one of a plethora of options to be included in the global climate deal scheduled for Paris next December. These could be struck out when the final deal is negotiated.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) might be encouraged to levy funds for climate adaptation, it suggests. There is no call on either industry to reduce their emissions.

Slow reform

Responsibility for managing emissions in their respective sectors has been delegated almost entirely to these two separate UN bodies.

They are taking quite different routes to decarbonisation, but at a similarly slow pace.

The IMO has introduced energy efficiency standards for new-build ships and is considering further measures for the existing fleet. ICAO plans to introduce an emissions trading scheme. Neither system is expected to be fully up and running before 2020.

An October report found total shipping emissions (including domestic journeys) had dipped slightly with the recession, as companies took to “slow steaming” – running at less than full speed – to reduce fuel costs.

With oil prices plummeting, that can be expected to change – and the report forecast growth of 50-250% by 2050 under business as usual.

Shipping is responsible for 2-3% of global greenhouse gas emissions (Pic: National Ocean Service)

Shipping is responsible for 2-3% of global greenhouse gas emissions
(Pic: National Ocean Service)

Total carbon dioxide emissions from planes are set to grow 3-4% a year, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Bows-Larkin says: “If we are genuinely committed to 2C, then by 2050 there should really be no fossil fuel emissions, so that does not give you any room to have two sectors where emissions continue to grow.”

While there are a handful of options for cutting emissions from ships, she argues a 2C world can only mean restricting the volume of flights, which will never be a popular policy.

That echoed an August study from Lund and Surrey universities, which warned against counting on technology breakthroughs, arguing global elites simply need to fly less.

National action

Action in these sectors is not wholly dependent on UN institutions.

A paper by Meredith Wilensky of Columbia Law School finds countries can ban inefficient ships from docking at their ports, for example, or charge fees based on emissions.

The study looked at Pacific islands, which are threatened by rising sea levels and looking for levers to mitigate climate change.

While the Lima agreement has nothing to say on international aviation, countries will have to count internal flights in their national emissions plans.

The US, which has historically resisted regulations on international flights, might reconsider when forced to confront its own substantial domestic airline emissions, Bows-Larkin suggests.

Read more on: Aviation | Comment | Road | Shipping | UN climate talks |