Carbon emissions from aviation: issues and options

The underlying issue is not trade rules but the global climate regime

The concerted opposition to the EU push towards forcing foreign airlines landing in Europe to become a part of its emissions trading scheme has led to an unexpected development, whose implications extend to setting the global climate agenda.

The US, which had so far rejected the scheme, now wants to resolve the trade dispute, by suggesting a global cap and trade regime. It is included among the options being considered by the International Civil Aviation Organization Council (ICAO), which last month also dropped consideration of an emissions trading system.

The US, and EU, policy shift comes immediately after the Rio + 20 Conference where the principle of common but differentiated  responsibilities was re-affirmed, whereas the fundamental principle underpinning ICAO is that all aircraft operators are treated equally regardless of their country of origin.

The ICAO Council quietly adopted a resolution in 2010 agreeing to fuel efficiency improvements, working towards a global cap on emissions at 2020 levels and a long term goal for the sector and differentiation based on capacity. These provisions reflect the negotiating position of developed countries laid out at Copenhagen in 2009.

The issue must also be seen in the context of trends in global emissions. Aviation emissions account for only 1% of global emissions. Whereas, emissions from automobiles constitute over 15 % of global emissions, account for half the increase in developed country emissions since 1990 and are the fastest growing emissions worldwide. For global carbon management the focus should be on road transport.

So, what should be the developing country response?

Developing countries should stress the provisions in the ICAO resolution that recognize their special circumstances, and that the different circumstances, respective capabilities and contribution of States to the concentration of aviation GHG emissions in the atmosphere will determine how each State may contribute to achieving the global goals. Defining the global goals should be at the centre of the negotiations, along the lines of the agreement at Rio + 20.

Developing countries should take the lead in putting forth an alternative vision which continues to be based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, but seeks to bring equity mainstream with a focus on concentration limits, through elements that are different to historical responsibility, differentiation and compensation that have been stressed since 1992:

Rio + 20 heralds a new framework where the international concern is no longer seeking global environmental protection through a ‘risk management’ approach but rather taking a sustainable development perspective focusing on ensuring human wellbeing within global ecological limits. Therefore, the global goal of limiting increase in global temperature applies only to developed countries and for developing countries that goal has to be considered along with the global consensus in the climate treaty, reiterated at Rio + 20, that poverty eradication remains their overriding priority.

This shift from considering the status of natural resources to reviewing patterns of natural resource use will require the negotiations to focus on the cumulative pressures countries place on the environment in terms of “stocks” of carbon, and not future “flows”, because concentrations of carbon rather than annual increments cause increases in temperature, and are at the heart of both the Climate and ICAO negotiations. Therefore, there is no case for a global cap on emissions from any sector or activity independent of national limits.

Instead, the global goal of “equitable access to sustainable development” agreed at Copenhagen, or access to adequate global ecosystem resources, or the atmospheric commons, necessary for industrialization, urbanization and infrastructure, including aviation, will be in the form of sharing the global carbon budget to enable comparable levels of development, rather than grandfathering of emissions in a sector benefiting existing polluters under a collective ‘cap’, defined as a global goal, as the US and EU suggest.

In determining concentration limits, historical responsibility, in the context of Rio + 20, would be replaced with a framework seeking agreement on the period of the global carbon budget that has to be equitably shared. That period could be from 1970 till at least 2050, because climate change first came onto the global agenda in the Stockholm Programme of Action in 1972, and over two-thirds of global emissions have occurred subsequently. It is also legitimate to discuss the treatment of the continuing increase in emissions after 1990 in developed countries, when they should have stabilized according to the UNFCCC. Aviation emissions, including military emissions, should be included within national inventories through an appropriate methodology.

The ICAO resolution, as well as the objective of the Climate Convention, focuses on national contributions to concentrations of green house gases in the atmosphere to determine what countries will do, and not on common measures to limit future aviation emissions, as suggested by the US and EU.

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