Will a global aviation deal release the airline emission strategy’s potential?

Just a month before the triennial General Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has produced a white paper stating that emissions reduction and sector offsetting is both achievable and affordable, and perhaps sooner than first projected. But after years of swings and roundabouts between the ICAO and the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) will this year's discussion finally lead to a tangible difference? Asks Begum Kurkcu

It is no secret that emissions from airlines have been growing faster than any other industry. Between 1990 and 2006 academics say that total emissions increased by 98%. It is projected that the sector will continue to take home the prize for fastest growing emitter between now and 2050 with an estimated tripling in emissions. So what is being done?

Airline emissions were first included in the EU ETS in 2009, when it was stipulated airlines would have to monitor emissions starting January 2010, but the conversation between Europe and the ICAO started a decade prior to that.

It was agreed that from January 2012, all aircraft operators (nearly 4000 at that time) flying to or from any airport in EU territory would be required to monitor their carbon emissions each year, and report them back to a verified regulator. At the same time the ICAO agreed an ‘aspirational’ target of improving fuel efficiency by 2% by 2050 and to stabilise aviation’s CO2 emissions by 2020.

Although a promising start, the EU and the ICAO have been seeking a more globally applicable agreement for some time. The organisations themselves recognized that something needed to be done to speed up the process and in April of this year a ‘Stop the Clock’ mechanism was put into force.

This gave the ICAO membership one year to come up with a market based mechanism to address the increasingly hot topic of airline emissions in a more efficient way that could be applied universally. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) this June also pushed for a mandatory scheme to be in place by 2016 to foster carbon-neutral growth.

These discussions will be had at the General Assembly of the ICAO this September, and the European Commission is confident the group is close to coming up with a strategy that can work world-wide and begin in 2016. However, should they fail, the original EU ETS legislation will come back into force.

The EU is looking for three key aspects from the organisation to be satisfied. Firstly, it must deliver reductions to (at least) the same tune as current EU ETS measures, secondly it must be non-discriminatory and applicable to all airlines, and thirdly it must contain targets for ICAO countries.

A number of commentators have said that the most likely strategy will include a number of carbon off-setting mechanisms as tech innovation, and internal operational changes alone are unlikely to be enough to counteract the affect brought on by increased consumer demand for flights.

The white paper released by the EDF states that this ‘seems eminently feasible’ and that ‘costs are clearly small, to the point of being trivial compared to other costs of running airlines’… job done?

Not quite. There is talk of re-tabling an old target to reduce aviation emissions by 50% by 2050. This will take more than an offsetting agreement. It will take a cultural shift by consumers, airline corporations, client organisations and governments.

Although this is arguably already happening, the aviation industry as a whole is still in the dark ages when it comes to sustainability strategy on a company wide scale, as opposed to simply looking at flight emissions. A common method for measurement across all scopes must be agreed upon too. The white paper said environmental (carbon unit) integrity is often shaky and the strongest stats come from organisations that accurately report and have strong penalties for non-compliance.

The EDF acknowledged that the shrinkage of the emissions gap through a single offsetting program is ambitious due to the number of variables at play throughout the industry as a whole. There is great uncertainty in terms of predictions and estimates (one estimate by Manchester Metropolitan University cites a difference of 11 billion tonnes when looking at the increase in emissions the sector may experience over the next 30 years) meaning the industry would be putting all its eggs in one basket.

The UN recognises over 100 categories of emission reducing projects. Technological innovations alone could not combat aviation emissions, and we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking an offsetting program will be able to either. The talks at the ICAO General Assembly next month must bear that in mind to avoid another further stagnation of the issue.

Begum Kurkcu is Ecodesk’s resident aviation industry expert and published author

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