The Obama administration announced what appeared to be a breakthrough in international cooperation to reduce carbon emissions from the aviation sector. Here is the description from the State Department.
The United States welcomes the historic agreement today at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on international aviation and climate change. Delegates to the Assembly adopted an unprecedented global commitment to collective action among countries around the world —developed and developing—to limit and reduce carbon emissions from international aviation. ICAO recognized that further work is necessary to define the path forward on implementation and the United States affirmed its commitment to further efforts within ICAO.
An agreement "to limit and reduce carbon emissions from international aviation" would indeed be worthy of celebration because aviation emissions currently represent 5% of industrial emissions. Unfortunately, the agreement is mostly smoke and mirrors.
Media coverage and uncoverage
You probably did not hear about he ICAO Assembly meeting in Montreal, which involved complex negotiations among representatives from 190 countries. Our beloved and intrepid corporate media in the United States found it far less entertaining than the opinion poll-driven election narrative, tax cuts for the deserving rich, foreclosures and job losses for the unwashed masses, and, of course, the latest celebrity couplings and uncouplings.
Media coverage in other parts of the world largely regurgitated the superlative adjectives from the ICAO press release. Here are examples from Canada and China. Note the use of diplomatic self-gratulatory catch phrases (e.g., "historic agreement," "remarkable achievement," "important advancements"). The substance boils downs to two paragraphs drawn from the ICAO press release without comment or analysis.
This historic agreement builds on achievements since the last ICAO Assembly in 2007, which included a global goal of 2 per cent annual fuel efficiency improvement up to the year 2050, a global framework for the development and deployment of sustainable alternative fuels for aviation, and a target of 2013 for a CO2 standard for aircraft engines.
Additional new initiatives include the development of a framework for market-based measures (MBMs), a feasibility study on the creation of a global MBM scheme and guiding principles for States to use when designing and implementing market-based measures for international aviation, all of which will be reviewed at the next Assembly in 2013.
Any guesses what that actually means? It sounds suspiciously like an agreement to keep talking about what should be done with no significant progress on specifics to achieve those goals.
The European press did shed some light on the "market-based measures" because the European Union (EU) wanted to include aviation emissions in the EU emissions trading system (ETS). The EU scored a small victory in gaining the right to include aviation emissions in the ETS. In the past, unanimous agreement was required among all member nations to regulate emissions, which effectively prevented the EU from implementing any regional regulation scheme.
"Crucially, ICAO has refrained from language which would make the application of the EU's ETS to their airlines dependent on the mutual agreement of other states," the Commission said, adding this had led to stalemate at the last ICAO assembly in 2007.
The EU was not permitted to regulate emissions for flights originating or terminating in other countries, a concession to US airlines.
Some U.S. airlines had challenged the EU's right to include their flights into and out of Europe within the ETS.
While praising the ICAO agreement, US Air Transport Assn. President and CEO James May expressed "deep disappointment" at the EU's steadfastness on the ETS. "Unfortunately, despite the tremendous step forward in cementing the international framework, the European States indicated their intent to continue to unilaterally impose their ETS and other measures on airlines from other countries,” he said. "We had hoped that an agreement at ICAO would obviate the need for our legal challenge to the application of the EU ETS to our airlines; the Europeans' resolve to ignore international law and key aspects of the new ICAO Assembly Resolution only strengthens our resolve to fight in favor of them."
A closer look at the "historic" accomplishments of the ICAO Assembly meeting in Montreal.
The EU came to the ICAO with an ambitious plan for binding 10% reductions of greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation sector by 2020 from 2005 levels, 80% reductions in emissions by 2050, and market-based carbon pricing to create incentives. The international community wanted to talk about "aspirational goals" and who gets to sit at the adult table (the ICAO Commission). The "historic agreement" coming out of the Assembly meeting consisted of "business-as-usual" for the next decade with a consensus to keep talking while the planet continues to heat up.
Here is summary from EarthJustice:
Governments and industry agreed to cap greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation at 2020 levels, and to improve fuel efficiency by 2 percent annually to 2050. Given likely advances in bio fuels, satellite-based navigation, and aircraft design, a cap at 2020 emissions levels essentially locks in business as usual and allows another decade of increasing emissions. The participating governments will also aim to set a global CO2 standard for aircraft engines in 2013.
The aviation agreement affirms the European Union’s inclusion of aviation emissions into their Emissions Trading Scheme and paves the way for similar action from other nations.
In short, greenhouse gas emissions are going to be capped at 2020 levels, with no commitments for reductions beyond increasing fuel efficiency (modestly correlated with emission levels). The targets are non-binding with no penalties for noncompliance. The plan was referred to as "Carbon Neutral Growth" (CNG), but should have been called the "Carbon Negotiating Gambit."
Heroes and zeroes
The European Union (EU) and its member states showed the strongest leadership in addressing carbon emissions from the aviation sector. They came with an ambitious plan, but found few other countries willing to join them.
The U.S. role received mixed reviews. American negotiators pushed to maintain the "mutual agreement" wording that would have given member states the right to veto more aggressive international regulations, which undercut the EU position.
But EU ambition was cut short by an American-led initiative to maintain the wording of a 2007 ICAO resolution that called for ‘mutual agreement’ whereby every single state affected by policies such as the EU-ETS would have to agree to be included; effectively killing such schemes.
The final ‘resolution’ passed by this year’s Assembly did not contain such strong language on ‘mutual agreement’ but EU diplomacy to protect the ETS plan came at a heavy price.
The U.S. position was indistinguishable from that of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade organization representing commercial airlines. The IATA has been pushing for carbon regulation by fuel efficiency improvements rather than carbon caps and pricing. The IATA received everything they wanted except for a more ambitious fuel efficiency target and theveto of the EU's right to adopt more ambitious regulations within the EU.
China objected to nearly every provision as a violation of self-determination. In all climate talks, China has demanded status as a "developing" nation rather the world's largest carbon polluter.
But even the CNG plan, which amounts to business-as-usual, was too much for some negotiator. The Chinese representative called the plan an attack on the human rights of his country’s citizens. CNG, along with almost every aspect of the assembly’s ‘resolution’, was also subject to an unprecedented number of ‘reservations’ whereby states declare that they do not feel bound by the decisions.
The bottom line
- The ICAO climate agreement fell far short of the EU proposal to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation sector. The most promising sign is that the EU will be able to take regional steps to control emissions. It sets a benchmark for estimating costs, a blueprint for regulation, and pressure on others to take stronger action.
- The U.S. position on the climate agreement was identical to that of the airline industry. Chalk up another victory for industry lobbyists.
- The ICAO did reach agreement on a broad range of aviation safety and security issues. It is ironic that the global community can come to agreement to prevent acts of terrorism, but cannot work together to address a far greater long-term threat.
- The ICAO accomplished more than the U.N. organization to address maritime activities. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) failed to reach an agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the shipping sector. On the plus side, the U.S., along with Norway and Japan, showed strong leadership towards the adoption of improved ship building specifications and carbon trading strategies.
Talks this week have focused on a proposal for an Energy Efficiency Design Index (EEDI) to make new vessels environmentally friendly -- put forward by Japan, Norway and the United States -- as well as a mandatory market-based mechanism.