Why is the EU so cool on the global aviation emissions deal?

It might have been the perfect moment for the European Union to celebrate: a global aviation emissions deal was last week clinched after long, intricate, complex negotiations of the sort that EU officials tend to excel. It means carbon emissions from air travel will be capped for the first time.

Yet the United Nations aviation plan agreed on October 7 in Montreal has only received lukewarm support from EU officials, who warn that it may not be enough to ensure the booming air transport sector can control its carbon emissions.

The agreement, secured through the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), is the first ever aimed reducing greenhouse gases from air traffic. It comes after nearly two decades of efforts to include aviation and shipping in the UN’s climate agreements, with the two sectors avoiding firm targets until now.

The 15-year Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA, came after a nine-day negotiating round. At least 65 members of the 191-strong UN, representing more than 80 percent of global aviation traffic, pledged to voluntarily participate in the system when it begins in 2020. ICAO estimates the agreement would cost airlines between €4.75 billion and $21.5 billion annually by 2035. But compared to the €162 billion airlines spent on fuel last year, these costs are far from punishing.

Exhaust from international flights accounts for about two percent of global greenhouse gases but it is forecast to triple by 2050. The accord does not force airlines to cut their pollution, but instead demands that companies compensate for any emissions growth after the accord starts in 2020. These offsets will be made by buying credits from alternative energy installations, forest conservation programmes and other projects that prevent some amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

The pact will roll out in two phases: firstly, on a voluntary trial basis starting in 2020, and then a full implementation with binding participation in 2027. By then, even recalcitrant countries like India and Russia will have to adhere to CORSIA’s new rules.

The ICAO deal is first global climate accord adopted since last December’s Paris Agreement curbing greenhouse gases from burning coal, oil and gas, which just passed a key threshold to enter into force next month. The air industry was largely omitted from the Paris accord over concerns that carving up responsibility for emissions could derail the broader deal.

After Paris, environmentalists pushed for the aviation deal, calling it an important first step that can be improved over time. But they criticized the final proposal for relying on voluntary participation. Some environmentalists even called it a “greenwash”, as it does not set an actual emission cap or cut in emissions. While airlines say they are striving to make planes more efficient – for example, through more fuel-efficient engines running on biofuels and lighter aircraft materials – there are questions about whether the industry is innovating fast enough to contain its emissions growth.

The EU, which played an important role in the talks, has echoed environmentalist concerns. Although EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc welcomed the deal as opening a new chapter in international aviation, where sustainability finally becomes part of the way we fly, she underlined that it was just a first step. “Of course this ICAO deal is not enough to really decarbonize aviation,” she said, but “without this deal, there is no other progress.”

The EU’s begrudging response is at least partly down to its inability to persuade the other ICAO delegates to sign on to stronger measures, akin to its own Emissions Trading System (ETS), a cap and trade mechanism for all planes arriving or departing from EU airports. The EU froze the scheme in November 2012 after the ICAO said it would take global action on emissions from planes. The ETS now only applies to intra-EU flights, despite complaints by European airlines, who feel at a disadvantage against foreign competitors.

Last week, MEPs said they would keep the ETM for flights within Europe. They compared CORSIA unfavourably with the European system, which actually reduces pollution from flights, while the new deal merely curbs it at 2020 levels. While the airline industry says the ICAO deal should be the only emissions scheme for international aviation, the text was drafted in a way that allows the EU to keep its scheme for flights between European countries.

Whatever the turn, everyone agrees that much work remains to be done before the deal is put into effect. Industry and government must work together to translate the text into specific measures that will change the way airlines generate and consume energy. Mechanisms must be developed to monitor and report current emissions, and criteria set up to select the real, bone fide offset credits. At the very least, it could open another stream of finance for low carbon projects.

It is too soon to say if the ICAO deal represents a turnaround in aviation emissions, or just a slight slowdown of its growth. It could have been more ambitious, of course, but on the other hand, the negotiations could have collapsed.

Yet the very fact that it was agreed should give the EU hope that, as Violeta Bulc said, the aviation accord is something to build on. In time, we could see countries sign up all transport modes to firm emissions commitments that leave no room for loopholes. But for now, the EU can take some pride in helping guide the rest of the world in a cleaner direction.

Words Leo Cendrowicz, Diederik Peereboom, Dennis Abbott & Karen Massin (Burson-Marsteller Brussels)
Photos CC/Flickr Kevin Gill

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