Take Off Delayed? ICAO Must Act On Aviation Emissions

As the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) approaches its triennial assembly in Montreal this fall, ECO is anxious for real progress. On its current flight path, commercial aviation will consume 27% of the available carbon budget in a 1.5°C scenario. In 2013, ICAO committed to adopting a credible market-based mechanism (MBM) at its 2016 assembly to stabilise net emissions at 2020 levels.
But in negotiations leading up to this assembly, nations have done a U-turn on this pledge. They agreed that the forthcoming targets will be voluntary until 2027. After kicking their mandatory, universal commitments down the road for seven years, the same countries that have signed up to the Paris Agreement are about to finalise an ICAO plan that is neither mandatory nor universal.
The voluntary nature of the emerging ICAO deal may be less important than whether ICAO delegates interpret it as a ceiling or a floor. Paris, after all, started out as a voluntary responsibility, to which the vast majority of the world’s nations have voluntarily signed on to, but the caveat is that the Paris Agreement will only enter into force after reaching the 55/55% threshold that would turn it into a legal instrument. So far, the signs aren’t good—countries such as the US are trying to use the ICAO deal to block more ambitious measures at regional and national levels. That’s hardly in the spirit of Paris.
It remains to be seen whether ICAO can achieve a meaningful outcome before COP22. It’ll be a good start if nations representing 70 to 80% of global emissions join a deal that includes an honest, robust MBM for offsetting airlines’ emissions, as well as move to swiftly increasing ambition beyond offsetting.
However, ECO wonders if even 70% coverage is believable—voluntary participation could soon turn into voluntary enforcement or safeguards, undermining the whole measure. To avoid such an epic aviation disaster, ICAO has the heavy duty to prove that there is climate credibility.
To reach that outcome, some developing countries may need better coordination across areas of interest. Otherwise, we will continue to see diplomats and environment officials committing to a robust international climate agreement, whilst their transport colleagues toil away on emission exemptions for airlines.
It wouldn’t be the first time in international negotiations that the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing. But if ICAO can benefit from a grand clarification, in which transport ministries align with their more climate-focused colleagues, we may arrive in Marrakech on the cusp of an advance worth celebrating.