Airplane emissions Photo © dell \

In early October 2013 the United Nations body responsible for global aviation committed to curbing pollution from the world’s airlines by the end of the decade. Members of the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), including Canada, had strongly criticised European Union efforts to include emissions under their Emissions Trading System (ETS). While the ICAO agreement represents a step forward on tackling a politically difficult issue, it is a blow to EU officials who had been attempting to regulate international aviation emissions in and out of EU airspace.

The Problem with Planes

For many people flying is their biggest contributor to their carbon footprint. The New York Times covered this issue earlier this year in an article titled “Your Biggest Carbon Sin May Be Air Travel” stating, “One round-trip flight from New York to Europe or to San Francisco creates a warming effect equivalent to 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person.” Readers can check their estimated carbon footprint online.

Scientists have been monitoring the environmental effects of global aviation, and in 1999 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a special report titled Aviation and the Global Atmosphere, providing more detail and context than is typically provided in the climate change assessment reports. Despite advances in efficiency and biofuels, the IPCC aviation report estimated a 3 per cent annual growth rate for aviation fuel use for passenger, freight and military aircraft. Even with the 9/11 attacks and 2008 financial crisis, airline emissions have continued to rise without any limiting global framework.

The Emissions Trading Schemes

The European Union launched its Emissions Trading System (cap and trade) for heavy energy-consuming installations (ie. power plants and manufacturing) in 2005. The ETS was later expanded to include other economic sectors and in 2008 an amendment to the legislation included aviation emissions within EU borders. On January 1st, 2012, it was expanded to all airlines operating in and out of Europe, requiring international carriers to have enough carbon permits to account for their emissions. This caused a considerable outcry from non-EU nations, including the US and Canada, which rejected the plan. President Obama signed the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme Prohibition Act of 2011 into law after government officials threatened to start a "trade war" with the EU. In 2012, the Canadian Minister for Transport at the time, Denis Lebel, stated in a press release, “Canada maintains that it is inconsistent with international aviation law for the EU ETS to apply to emissions released by non-European Union air carriers outside the European Union’s airspace.” Non-EU nations and the International Air Transport Association, the airline lobbying group, challenged that the ICAO should be responsible for developing global emission reduction targets.

The European Parliament faced a tough decision. It could continue to press forward with the ETS, facing endless legal challenges and the real possibility of a trade war, with a likely outcome being no international agreement on emissions. Or the EU could defer to the ICAO and reach some kind of agreement. In April 2013 it decided to temporarily suspend enforcement of the EU ETS requirements for flights to or from non-EU countries, and over the summer months concessions were quietly proposed. After a session of EU parliament on September 4th, 2013 it was announced that the EU would relent. The director general for climate action at the European Commission stated, “While the agreement is ‘far from perfect,’ the alternative was an endless stalemate of legal battles that risked the credibility of the ETS.”

 The ICAO Agreement

And so that brings us back to the ICAO agreement on October 4th, 2013, where members agreed to develop a global market-based mechanism (MBM, ie. cap and trade) addressing international aviation emissions by 2016 and apply it by 2020. However the saga is far from over. On October 16th the EU Commission set out a proposal amending the current EU ETS so that international aviation emissions would only be included for the segment of flights within EU airspace. This is likely to be met with more opposition from the international community and ICAO.

There are doubts that the EU will be able to regulate international aviation emissions within its own borders. As quoted from a recent article in European Voice, “a source close to the negotiations said … foreign airlines would not have complied with the EU law. There has also been immense pressure on EU lawmakers from European aircraft maker Airbus, after China threatened to halt orders in response to the ETS inclusion.” Ultimately there is no way for the EU to effectively enforce its ETS legislation, so pushing the issue would again undermine its credibility, while other nations would find ways to cause financial pain.

Dan is an environmental professional currently living in Toronto. Dan has previously published in Municipal World and Environmental Science and Engineering. He specializes in energy, transportation, and climate change policy, corporate sustainability, and environmental planning and assessments. He recently completed a Masters of Environmental Applied Science and Management at Ryerson University and has a Bachelors' degree in Environment and Business from the University of Waterloo. 

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