Durban: UN aviation agency touts green initiatives, but emissions reductions nowhere to be seen

EDF has a team here in Durban, South Africa for two weeks to participate in the UN climate summit. One of the issues we’re engaged on in the negotiations is reducing emissions from international aviation and maritime shipping.

With tens of thousands of people from around the world here to discuss a global response to climate change, the daily schedule is always packed full of official negotiations, large plenary meetings, and press conferences.

Each day also features a number of “side events” — events outside the official negotiations put on by any “observer” of the climate negotiations, including countries, UN agencies,  and non-governmental organizations (like EDF) — which serve as an important venue for information sharing, creative thinking, and open discussion on policy recommendations.

Earlier in the conference, I attended “Emissions from international transport – global actions for global industries,” a side event jointly hosted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the UN agencies for aviation and maritime shipping affairs, respectively.

For nearly fifteen years, member states of ICAO have been toiling over how to reduce carbon pollution from the aviation sector. To date, ICAO has yet to design or implement a measure to curb such emissions and shows no sign of progress in the near future.  (It’s worth noting that the UNFCCC negotiations on international transport don’t aim to create an emissions reduction mechanism. Rather, countries here in Durban are trying to agree on a decision that would encourage ICAO and IMO to hasten their work to reduce emissions from their respective sectors.)

Given this history, the side event at the climate negotiations was stunning: ICAO spent nearly all its 45 minute event lauding its recent initiatives to reduce emissions, calling them “miraculous.”

So what ICAO climate initiatives are worthy of such praise? None.

ICAO’s current efforts to reduce emissions from aviation amount to a do-nothing plan: global inspirational goals to improve fuel efficiency and achieve carbon neutral growth from 2020.

What exactly does this mean? It means:

  1. Neither countries nor carriers have any legal requirements to reduce their total emissions; and
  2. Aviation emissions can grow unfettered until 2020, at which point emissions could plateau if countries voluntarily take actions to mitigate emissions growth.

What’s next?

Here at the climate negotiations in Durban, countries have the opportunity to send a clear message that ICAO must expedite a process to achieve net emissions reductions from the aviation sector. ICAO member states don’t get another decade to dillydally on the issue. They must act now.

Considering ICAO’s lack of progress in the past decade, it’s hard to believe that a clear signal from the UNFCCC will do much to catalyze progress in that forum.

But in the interim, as ICAO gets its act together, countries should continue to move ahead with national policies to reduce emissions from aviation. The European Union’s Aviation Directive provides a great model for such action—as of January 1, 2012 airlines using EU airports will be held accountable for their carbon pollution.

While the EU aviation directive will achieve emissions reduction in the near-term, and represents a positive step toward a global policy to reduce emissions from aviation, some countries—including the United States—and some airlines are trying to derail the EU law, decrying it as a “unilateral” measure, and “the wrong way to go about the right objective.” In fact, the U.S. is scheduled to raise its concerns with the EU in a bilateral meeting tomorrow in Washington, DC. EDF Attorney, Pamela Campos will be present at the negotiations, representing US NGOs. Stay tuned…

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