Greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation may not increase past 2020 without airlines purchasing carbon offsets, following the adoption last week of the first ever global climate agreement covering a single industrial sector.
If airlines are not able to achieve emissions reductions via technical improvements, operational changes or an expansion of the use of alternative fuels, they must finance a reduction in atmospheric greenhouse gases elsewhere via international carbon markets covering clean energy projects and forestation programmes.
The 191-nation United Nations (UN) International Civil Aviation Organization backed the accord after nine days of intense debate in Montreal atop a background of six years of sometimes bitter negotiation between developed and developing countries.
The accord will initially be voluntary. Over 65 states including Canada, the United States, most of the European Union (EU) and China, and covering some 83 percent of international aviation emissions, have signed up to participate in this first phase. The agreement then becomes mandatory for all states from 2027 except for some least developed and landlocked countries or small island states, and aircraft companies with very low levels of international aviation activity (defined as less than 10,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year). Earlier drafts had envisaged just a five-year voluntary period.
Domestic aviation emissions are outside the new deal given that they already fall under the rubric of the UN Paris Agreement,, the international climate pact that will enter into force on November 4. As with shipping, international aviation had been excluded from the Paris Agreement as airlines had feared a patchwork of regional regulations with varying levels of stringency.
Talks began in earnest after the European Union passed legislation in 2012 that would have required airlines to purchase carbon permits for any flights in or out of the bloc’s airspace. The move provoked resistance from other jurisdictions, which accused the EU of, in effect, legislating beyond its borders. Brussels said that it would postpone implementation of the law until the ICAO had reached an agreement. But in the wake of the deal, European lawmakers said that the ICAO pact is not ambitious enough to decarbonize and will now assess whether they will proceed to apply EU carbon-trading rules to foreign flights.
Throughout negotiations India, Russia and Brazil were some of the most prominent critics of a hard cap, as they argued it limited the ability of the airline industry in less wealthy countries to develop. Brazil however was reportedly won over in the end by US diplomacy and the promise that domestic firms will be able to take advantage of the carbon offset scheme.
The pact envisages that by 2025, airline purchase of offsets in order to comply with the rules of the new agreement will amount to between $1.5 billion and $6.2 billion, rising to between $5.3 billion and $23.9 billion by 2035.
Energy economist Mark Jaccard helped design BC’s carbon tax, and he still supports it. But he questions just how politically viable a stringent tax—at the level needed to meet climate targets—can really be. So he also continues to explore how other policies that the public find more acceptable could work.