UN negotiators spar over draft global aviation emissions reduction scheme

18 May 2016

The 191 members of the UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) tussled last week over a draft resolution to establish a global market-based measure (GMBM) to help meet the sector’s goal of carbon neutral growth from 2020 during a meeting held in Montreal, Canada, from 11-13 May.

According to media reports, divisions emerged over how to share responsibilities between nations, a tension that has long plagued separate UN climate talks.

“We express concern that the draft proposal on GMBM may impose an inappropriate economic burden on developing countries, where the international aviation market is still maturing,” read a joint statement issued ahead of the meeting on behalf of Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Panama, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.

However, despite these apparent hurdles some sources said that the meeting remained constructive, with members tabling various proposals in the hope of breaching the impasse.

“Experienced negotiators are saying they’ve never seen a more positive attitude here before. There are still a lot of points to be discussed, but generally I’m quite optimistic,” Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, a Dutch member of the European Parliament attending the Montreal gathering, told climate media outlet Carbon Pulse.

ICAO members agreed in 2013 to outline an international aviation emissions reduction platform as part of a package of mitigation measures in time for the body’s next triennial gathering due to take place this coming September.  Further talks in June will be convened in a bid to make progress ahead of that event. (See BioRes, 29 October 2013)

The global MBM is planned as a carbon offsetting scheme for international aviation. According to the current draft resolution, the mechanism will act as a complement to rather than replace other mitigation measures, such as fuel efficiency and technological innovation.

International industry

Aviation emissions account for between two and five percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. While some countries and regions are taking steps to tackle domestic airline emissions – South Korea has included aviation in its national carbon market and China also has plans to do so – those from international aviation currently make up around 60 percent of the sector’s total.

International aviation emissions were omitted in the final negotiating stretch for a new multilateral deal on climate change secured last December in Paris, France, with many observers consequently eyeing ICAO as the key platform for collaboration around the issue. (See BioRes, 19 February 2016)

Industry voices last week expressed some concern that a lack of progress on a global emissions reduction scheme could lead to a patchwork of regional or national measures. A paper by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) acknowledged that though the global offsetting measure could cost up to US$24 billion by 2035, this would be preferable to measures taken at a national or regional level.

“The airline industry has been able to manage similar global increases in operating costs in the past, with minimal impact on traffic growth. In contrast, increases in costs on a national or regional level are more difficult for the industry to adapt to because of the potential market distortions that they create,” the paper reads.

Furthermore, efforts by players such as the EU to include international aviation emissions in its flagship Emissions Trading System (ETS) in 2012 prompted strong push back by over two dozen countries, voicing concerns that this would alter competitiveness and breach international trade rules.

While the EU eventually agreed to require the submission of carbon permits only for intra-European flights, Brussels has warned that it will consider restoring its original aviation ETS rule that covered the entire portion of a flight landing or taking off from the 28-nation bloc, depending on the outcome of this year’s ICAO meet. (See BioRes, 7 April 2014)

Some sources reported that Egypt tabled a proposal last week to prevent any unilateral measures on international aviation emissions once the global MBM comes into play. 

Responsibilities and differentiation

The aviation talks face a delicate task of balancing ICAO’s principle of treating all airlines uniformly to ensure a level playing field with the ability to distinguish between states with different levels of aviation capacity or activity.

Proposals from nations such as China last week also pushed for reference to the UN climate convention principle of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities,” while others including the US said that it was important to secure a wide coverage, and avoid permanently excluding some states from the final accord.

A revised draft resolution dated from 12 May recognises that the GMBM should take into account special circumstances and respective capabilities between nations. The document also proposes a phased-in implementation for the offsetting scheme to accommodate this.

The first implementation phase would start in 2021 and apply to states that have an individual share of international aviation activities in revenues tonnes kilometres (RTKs) in year 2018 above 1.0 percent of total RTKs. A proposal for this phase to also apply to all high income countries was more or less panned last week.

RTKs are defined as one tonne of passengers or cargo, transported across a one-kilometre distance.

A second implementation phase would apply from 2026 to states with international aviation activities in RTKs in year 2018 above 0.5 percent of the total. States not included in the first phase would have the option to participate on a voluntary basis.  

Washington would prefer to see a system where an individual airline’s growth rate is eventually incorporated to help determine offsetting responsibility, replacing the national sectoral approach. According to observers, this approach was dismissed by some countries with carriers that are fast-growing, but relatively young. 

The revised draft resolution also states that new entrants would be exempted from the scheme for three years or until the year in which its annual emissions exceed 0.1 percent of total emissions in 2020. Small carriers, along with humanitarian, medical, and firefighting operations, would also be omitted.

ICAO member states would put in place the necessary monitoring, reporting, and verification schemes, with a three-year compliance cycle, and provide capacity building support and other assistance for implementation.

The offsetting scheme could also favour emissions units generated from programmes that benefit developing countries, including those coming from the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and other new market mechanisms or programmes borne out of the UN climate talks.

UN climate talks underway

Meanwhile, the latest round of UNFCCC talks kicked off in Bonn, Germany, on Monday with a view to operationalising the new Paris Agreement on climate change. Key areas up for discussion include further guidance for national climate plans, a transparency framework to monitor these, a global stocktake, and implementation and compliance. (See BioRes, 12 May 2016)

“Your Paris Agreement has been hailed as a historic achievement, and so it was,” outgoing UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres told delegates on Monday.

“All the components of the equation are now aligned. Now we must design the details of the path to the safe, prosperous climate-neutral future to which we all aspire,” she added.

The opening of the talks was accompanied by the sobering news from the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that April was the warmest on record for the globe, the seventh consecutive month where earth’s temperatures have surpassed previous highs.

A joint communiqué following the meeting of G7 environment ministers in Toyama, Japan, on Sunday and Monday welcomed the adoption of the Paris pact and called on parties to actively engage in the Bonn process. The seven major economies also commit to developing long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies as soon as possible.

Additionally, the document emphasises the importance of reaching an agreement on the global MBM under ICAO this year, recognising the significance of projected emissions growth from the sector.

ICTSD reporting; “ICAO aviation offset market talks yield little progress, seen backtracking on previous agreement,” CARBON PULSE, 14 May 2016; “ANALYSIS: ICAO climate talks reach crunch time, but deal poised to exempt most aviation emissions,” CARBON PULSE, 11 May 2016. 

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