UN aviation environment committee reviews emissions reduction plans

19 February 2016

The UN civil aviation body in September will consider a proposal for a market-based platform to reduce the sector’s emissions starting from 2020.

A committee tasked with leading environmental protection efforts at the UN’s civil aviation body wrapped up a fortnight of talks on Friday 12 February that included a review of work related to developing a proposal for a market-based measure (MBM) to reduce aviation emissions starting from the end of the decade.

The 191 members of the UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) agreed in 2013 to outline an aviation emissions reduction platform in time for the body’s triennial gathering this coming September.

The Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP) additionally agreed in February to a set of binding design standard for airplane carbon dioxide emissions after six years of talks, a move hailed by some observers as a positive sign of increasing climate ambition for the sector.

The CAEP also considered work on sustainability criteria and life-cycle analysis for sustainable alternative fuels, approved a methodology to quantify air cargo CO2 emissions, as well as considered items related to aircraft noise. 

“The CEAP is an invaluable asset to ICAO’s work across the full basket of measures to reduce aviation’s impact on the environment, inclusive of emissions and noise mitigation,” said ICAO Council President, Dr. Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu, in a press release at the close of the session.  

Growing emissions

Aviation emissions account for some two percent of the world’s total annual CO2 output, around 12 percent of transport emissions, and are expected to expand rapidly by 2050 if no further abatement actions are taken.

“The eyes of the world are on airlines, and on ICAO, to drive substantial concrete progress on reducing emissions.”

However, while national aviation emissions are covered under domestic reduction policies and emissions inventories, international emissions that make up the majority are not. With references to aviation emissions dropped from the final text of a multilateral climate deal struck in December in Paris, France, many stakeholders are now closely eyeing ICAO’s work in this area.

“The eyes of the world are on airlines, and on ICAO, to drive substantial concrete progress on reducing emissions,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during a visit to the CAEP meeting.

“We need more sustainable energy alternatives for fossil fuels. Airlines must increase their use of energy-efficient technology. Airport buildings and transport infrastructure must be sustainable and climate-friendly. ICAO is showing the way.”

ICAO members have set an aspirational goal to improve fuel efficiency by two percent annually and stabilise net global CO2 emissions at 2020 levels. The MBM and new design standard are slated as a key part of achieving these goals.

“Carbon Market Watch has hope that discussions will lead to a cap on aviation emissions and the creation of a robust global market-based measure,” said group representatives Kat Watts and Kelsey Perlman at the start of February, commenting on the ongoing MBM proposal process.   

“This is achieved by only allowing projects that reduce emissions that are additional to the status quo, permanent, verifiable, and completely and accurately quantified and monitored,” the environmental group explained.

Next steps for aviation emissions market

Following a mandate from the ICAO Assembly, UN officials should make a recommendation on the global MBM, drawing on a series of workshops across five regions and technical studies undertaken over the last two years.

The recommendation should include key design elements, identify ways to take into account special circumstances and respective capabilities, and plan for implementation in the context of emerging technologies, operational improvements, and so on. The February CAEP meeting reportedly outlined possible criteria for offsets within the new scheme.

Delegates will likely consider the recommendation during a high-level meeting on the global MBM scheduled to take place from 11-13 May in Montreal, Canada, with the purpose of hammering out a draft text to send to September’s ICAO Assembly.

However, discussion on aviation emissions reductions and international cooperation around these, has been controversial in the past. Failure to make progress on the subject under ICAO led the EU to insert aviation into its Emissions Trading System (ETS) in January 2012, a move subsequently panned by over two dozen countries, including the US, China, and Russia who alleged a breach of WTO rules.

The aviation component in the EU ETS would have required airlines landing in or taking off from the 28-nation bloc to surrender carbon permits equal to emissions over the entire flight, in effect, a unilateral effort to regulate aviation emissions.

After escalating tensions on the matter Brussels agreed to “stop the clock” on including in the ETS all flights landing or taking off outside its borders, and EU lawmakers later extended this exemption until 2017, with only intra-European flights currently covered.  

Experts eyeing the ICAO September meet have suggested that plans by China to include aviation in its national carbon market – due to come online next year – and a growing momentum behind climate action following the landmark December climate meet augur well for a positive outcome this time round.

Brussels has nevertheless warned that insufficient progress on the global MBM plan this year could see it consider restoring its original aviation ETS rule.

New aircraft emissions standards

Although several experts rate the MBM as the primary tool to reduce aviation emissions, the new CO2 design standard was welcomed by many in February as a useful contribution.

The standard will, once adopted, be fully applicable to all new plane designs starting in 2020; to planes currently in production from 2023, and to all planes produced from 2028 onward. (See BioRes, 11 February 2016)

Some green groups, however, said that the new CO2 design standard could have been far stricter since these initially only apply to new models.

ICTSD reporting.

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