The aviation industry has announced what it claims is “a historic agreement” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but industry experts and environmentalists say the agreement is vague and lacks the enforcement mechanisms necessary to give it teeth.
At a meeting last week of the International Air Transport Association (I.A.T.A.), an industry group of more than 200 airlines representing 84 percent of the world’s air travel, the assembled airlines agreed on a plan to improve fuel efficiency by 1.5 percent annually until 2020, cap their net carbon dioxide emissions after 2020, and cut emissions in half by 2050 compared with a 2005 baseline.
Environmental campaigners derided the agreement, arguing that it will permit the aviation industry, which accounts for between two and three percent of global carbon emissions, to sustain its massive environmental footprint.
“Major airlines have come up with yet another way of imposing delays upon the world,” wrote Grist’s John Upton. “The plan lacks details, aims low, and would sit on the tarmac until 2020 or later.”
Bill Hemmings, aviation manager for Transport & Environment, a nongovernmental organization that promotes green transportation, said the I.A.T.A. agreement “represents a welcome departure from their historical position that better air traffic control, better planes and biofuels alone can solve the problem.”
But Hemmings ultimately criticized the plan, saying it would allow airlines to purchase cheap carbon offsets rather than make real reductions in carbon emissions. He also complained that the plan “rules out the [European Union emissions trading scheme] as a stepping stone.”
The I.A.T.A. has opposed the E.U.’s emissions trading scheme, which would force airlines operating in E.U. airspace to cap carbon dioxide emissions or buy carbon offsets. In November, the E.U., bowing to I.A.T.A. opposition, mostly from airlines in the United States, China, and India, agreed to suspend its emissions trading scheme and give the I.A.T.A. a year to create a global system.
“The E.U. has always been very clear: nobody wants an international framework tackling CO2-emissions from aviation more than we do,” said Connie Hedegaard, E.U. Commissioner for Climate Action, upon announcing the suspension of the union’s emissions trading scheme. “Now it seems that because of some countries’ dislike of our scheme, many countries are prepared to move… towards a market-based mechanism at a global level.”
That mechanism may now be within reach. Tony Tyler, I.A.T.A. director general and chief executive, said the airlines’ new agreement is a major step towards getting governments to agree to cap aviation emissions on a global scale.
“This industry agreement should help to relieve the political gridlock on this important issue and give governments momentum and a set of tools as they continue their difficult deliberations,” said Tyler.
The test of whether governments will back the I.A.T.A. agreement will come in September, when the General Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization (I.C.A.O.), a U.N. agency composed of 191 countries which participate in global aviation, is set to convene in Montreal, Canada.
There are some indications that I.C.A.O. member states may be prepared to work together to enact a global emissions cap. In May, I.C.A.O. member states issued a joint statement [PDF] agreeing “to cooperate on the promotion of sustainable approaches to global aviation emissions reduction.”
Still, many observers are skeptical whether member countries can summon the political will to come to a consensus.
“After 15 years of I.C.A.O. inaction, it’s crystal clear now that a global market-based measure for the aviation sector is simply a question of political will,” said Hemmings.
Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, blamed the United States for holding up international agreements thus far.
“To a large extent, the U.S. holds the key to real progress on an market-based measure now,” said Petsonk. “This will be the first opportunity for Obama to show that he means what he said in his victory speech: ‘We want our children to live in an America that… isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.’”
Added Hemmings: “These are critical times and the world can no longer wait.”