EDF Talks Global Climate

Clouds on the horizon: The legal status of the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism

In sunny springtime Bonn at the climate talks, discussions are intensifying about the future of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

The CDM was established in 1997 by the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. The Protocol set caps on the carbon pollution of more than 30 industrialized countries for the years 2008-2012, and the caps were amended to extend them to 2020.

The Protocol provides that when industrialized countries invest in projects that cut carbon pollution in developing countries, the CDM can issue carbon credits – called Certified Emission Reductions (CERs). The Protocol then authorizes industrialized countries to increase their emissions above their commitment levels and use the credits to comply with their emissions commitments by claiming them as offsets against pollution growth.

Since its launch over 20 years ago, the CDM has been analyzed extensively – from the transparency of its institutions, to the geographic distribution of its projects, the marginal costs of CDM investments, the environmental effectiveness of these investments, their vulnerability to fraud and deregistration, and the future potential of the CDM in the context of the 2015 Paris Agreement, whose new frameworks for addressing climate change supplant the Kyoto commitments starting in 2020.

Legal status of CDM

One topic that has received little attention, however, is the legal status of the CDM and of the carbon credits issued by it.

Is there a legal basis for the CDM’s institutions to continue after the Kyoto Protocol’s commitments expire in 2020? If so, is there a legal basis for the CDM to issue carbon credits after 2020? And is there a legal basis for using CDM credits to meet emissions reduction obligations after 2020?

There’s a legal uncertainty hovering over any prospective post-2020 use of Certified Emission Reductions (CERs) to meet emissions obligations.

Initial legal analysis indicates that while the Kyoto Protocol may provide a legal basis for the CDM’s institutions to continue, there is no legal basis for using CERs to meet any other emissions reduction obligations after 2020. Article 12.3(b) of the Kyoto Protocol authorizes one use, and only one use, for the CDM’s carbon credits: it provides that industrialized countries may use CERs to contribute to part of their compliance with their emissions commitments under the Protocol.

That means there’s a legal uncertainty hovering over any prospective post-2020 use of CERs to meet emissions obligations, whether in the context of the Paris Agreement or the market based mechanism known as the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), which was adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in 2016.

This legal uncertainty has many practical implications. One is that as nations move to implement their emissions reduction commitments (known as “nationally determined contributions," or NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, some hope that the CDM’s institutions and tools could unleash investment in emission reductions in sectors not covered by NDC pledges.

The volume of emissions in those “non-NDC” sectors may be quite significant: a new analysis indicates that up to one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions of the Paris Parties might lie outside the NDCs. Failure to adopt rigorous rules for monitoring and accounting for carbon credits in these sectors could create perverse incentives to let non-NDC pollution balloon. Whether the CDM is up to this task remains unclear.

What would clarify the situation is the following: If Parties to the Paris Agreement – and the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol – want the CDM and its carbon credits to serve new purposes after 2020, the Parties will need to take key legal steps before 2020 to adapt them to the new realities of the Paris Agreement.

The good news is that these legal steps – which may include amending the Kyoto Protocol – are fully within the authority of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol (CMP) and the authority of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA) to undertake. But if the CMP and CMA fail to act, then the future of the CDM, from a legal perspective, will remain a cloudy one.

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ICAO’s market-based measure could cover 80% of aviation emissions growth in mandatory phase

icao-logo The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the UN agency charged with setting standards for international flights, has set a goal of “carbon neutral growth from 2020” – i.e. capping net emissions at year-2020 levels. The ICAO Assembly today adopted a global market-based measure that lets airlines purchase high-quality emission reductions to offset the carbon growth above the cap.

Analysis of high-quality data on aviation emissions projections demonstrates the ICAO market-based measure is a critical step forward for climate action, and could prevent nearly 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere over the first 15 years of the program. Here’s how.

The market-based measure provides that:

  • from 2021-2023, nations would opt in to a voluntary pilot phase;
  • from 2024-2026, nations would opt in voluntarily to another phase;
  • from 2027-2035, all nations would be required to participate, with some exceptions;
  • least developed countries, land-locked developing countries, and small island developing countries would all be exempt throughout (although these states could opt in at any time if they so choose).

What this means for ICAO’s commitment to “carbon neutral growth from 2020” depends on how many more countries decide voluntarily to opt in.

EDF has developed an interactive tool to allow users to estimate how many emissions would be covered of the billion-tonne gap between projected emissions and the 2020 cap, if various countries opt in to the MBM.

The tool provides unique calculations of the aviation sector’s emissions growth based on projections from ICAO, industry and analysts. The focus on emissions provides a direct estimate of the aviation sector’s contribution to climate change that complements analyses based on aviation’s traffic growth, measured in revenue tonne kilometers (RTKs).

Here’s the snapshot of the tool as of the adoption of the market-based measure on October 6. With Qatar and Burkina Faso becoming the 64th and 65th countries to signal their intent to participate in the MBM from the start, 65% of emissions growth above 2020 would be covered in Pilot + Phase 1, and nearly 80% (79%) of these emissions would be covered during Phase 2 of the program (2027-2035). Importantly, 77% of anticipated emissions growth above 2020 would be covered over the first fifteen years of the program.


The tool shows the importance of commitments to early participation by the Asia-Pacific aviation powerhouse states of Singapore, Japan, Korea, and Australia; the Middle Eastern aviation dynamos of United Arab Emirates and Qatar; Latin American states like Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala; and leading African states such as Kenya.

It also shows that as exempted states increase in their importance as aviation powers, participation by at least some of them will be significant for boosting overall coverage toward the goal of carbon-neutral growth from 2020. Consequently, it will be important for today’s leading aviation countries to help build MBM capacity in the anticipated aviation leaders of tomorrow.

A number of countries that are exempt under the resolution's formulas, including leading voices from the front lines of climate impacts – Burkina Faso, Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Kenya – have announced their intent to participate, and more are expected to join.

After nearly two decades of effort, ICAO is providing global leadership, with both developed and developing countries taking the lead. Hand in hand with this week’s announcement about ratification of the Paris Agreement, that’s good news indeed.

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To understand airplanes’ climate pollution, a picture is worth a thousand words

Thousands of words have been written this week about a new efficiency standard recommended by a technical group of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The standard, if adopted by ICAO’s executive council, is intended to require aircraft manufacturers to start producing more efficient airplanes.

But one picture makes clear that even with the new efficiency standard, international aviation still has a huge gap between its anticipated emissions and its own environmental goals.

Graph of aviation's emissions gap

Source: Environmental Defense Fund

The top of the upsloping curve shows how international aviation’s emissions are slated to skyrocket in coming years.

The horizontal red line toward the bottom, labeled “Emissions Cap at 2020 levels,” shows the industry’s own goal of “carbon-neutral growth from 2020.” ICAO has also embraced this goal.

The area below the top of the curve and above the horizontal red line at 2020 is the total amount of emissions that international aviation must deal with to meet this goal.

This week, ICAO’s Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP) recommended that ICAO’s Executive Council adopt, at its next meeting in June, a carbon dioxide efficiency standard for aircraft, akin to a fuel economy standard for cars. That’s a step in the right direction.

But how big a slice will this new standard take out of international aviation’s skyrocketing emissions? At best, that’s the blue sliver shown in this picture. (The red sliver aviation hopes to cut through “operational improvements” like better air traffic control.)

That leaves a huge “Emissions Gap” – shown in green – about 7.8 billion tonnes of carbon pollution that international aviation will have to deal with to meet its own climate goals, let alone the kinds of reductions that will be needed if the sector is to bring emissions down to the dashed red arrow, along the lines of the Paris Climate Agreement.

The industry has a long way to go to make carbon pollution go down, not up.

ICAO’s pledged to finalize, this September, a global market-based measure (MBM) with offsetting to drive industry’s net emissions down to the 2020 cap. President Obama has made climate action a centerpiece of his legacy. Success in cutting aviation emissions could help – but that will only happen if the Obama administration takes the lead in the intensive talks now underway in ICAO.

The picture is clear: While the aircraft standard will help, the Administration now needs to keep its eyes on the prize the ICAO decision on the market-based measure in September.

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International action on aviation emissions: What's at stake in ICAO

If international aviation were a country, it would be a top ten emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2), on par with Germany or the United Kingdom. And it’s expected to grow enormously: with more than 50,000 new large aircraft slated to take to the skies, its emissions are expected to triple or quadruple by 2040.

In Paris in December 2015, the world hailed the success of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in adopting the first broadly applicable instrument to start driving carbon pollution down, with a goal of limiting warming to 1.5-2° C.

But Paris didn’t cover pollution from flights between countries. Why not? Because in 1997, aviation lobbied for, and got, the UNFCCC to defer these to another UN body, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

ICAO talked about the issue for fifteen years until 2013, when, with Europe poised to enforce a cap on emissions of inbound/outbound flights, ICAO pledged to act by 2016. Quiet talks are now underway on:

  1. An ICAO CO2 standard for aircraft – akin to a miles-per-gallon standard for cars. In Montreal next week, possibly as early as Monday, February 8, 2016, a technical group is expected to agree a recommendation for this standard.
  1. A cap on international aviation’s total CO2 emissions at 2020 levels. ICAO is slated to vote in September 2016, on the cap and a market-based measure (MBM) to help airlines implement it.

Here’s what’s at stake:


Source: Environmental Defense Fund

Without any new rules, international aviation’s carbon pollution is expected to skyrocket (top red line). Better air traffic control can trim some pollution (top red wedge). An ambitious CO2 standard would mean fewer emissions per passenger-mile, further slowing the sector’s emissions growth (blue wedge). But because the industry’s overall emissions are expected to far outstrip these per-trip efficiency gains, there’s still a huge gap (green triangle) – at least 6-8 billion tonnes – to get to the goal of an emissions cap at 2020 levels (red horizontal line), or even more ambitious goals along the lines of the Paris agreement (red dashed line).

The real prize is the market-based measure to cap aviation emissions and drive pollution down, not up.

Learn more at edf.org/aviation.

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Aviation emissions deal: ICAO takes one step forward, half step back

ICAO's decision today on aviation emissions offers the prospect of the world's first carbon cap on an entire global sector.

The United Nations agency for aviation today launched a three-year effort to achieve a global market-based measure to cap the climate pollution of international aviation.

After nights of lavish receptions – a testament to the financial robustness of international aviation – delegates finally got down to the hard work of negotiating a resolution on how ICAO will tackle the climate change issue.

The decision by the 191 countries in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to develop a measure to limit the emissions of international civil aviation offers the prospect of the world's first carbon cap on an entire global sector.

Last night, we said the proposal – which was adopted around noon today – amounted to “one step forward, half a step back."  Here’s what we meant.

 One step forward, half a step back

The decision by the 38th General Assembly to develop, by 2016, a global market-based measure capping international aviation’s carbon pollution at 2020 levels is a step forward on the path to averting dangerous climate change. If it were a country, aviation would rank in the world’s top ten largest emitters, and it is one of the fastest growing sources of global warming pollution.

With this decision, ICAO has opened a door to the possibility of a future global cap on these emissions and an array of programs – including a market-based measure sought by both the industry and the environmental community – to ensure that the cap is met.

However, a bedrock principle of international law is that nations have the sovereign right to limit pollution emitted in their borders. So, ICAO’s attempt to narrow the ambit for countries to implement their own market-based measures to cap and cut the burgeoning global warming pollution from international aviation pushed it half a step back.

Differences erupt in waning hours

Deep differences between and among countries erupted in the waning hours at the just-concluded Assembly, including disagreements about how and even whether to complete this task.  At several points the meeting seemed destined to disintegrate.

An acrimonious vote on whether countries could bring aviation emissions under their national emissions trading system nearly caused the meeting to disintegrate.

In the end delegates agreed 1) nations should seek the agreement of other nations before imposing their market-based measures on flights from those other nations; and 2) such national market-based measures should exempt flights to and from nations whose flag carriers hold less than 1% share of the global market, measured in “revenue-ton-kilometers.”

Next steps

Remember – this decision is only a first step, but it is an important one because it provides a path forward for a cap on the aviation sector.

Now it’s time to shift to the hard work of designing the global market-based mechanism and getting 191 countries to agree to it.

Intensive efforts will be needed to make ICAO’s promise a reality. It’s not the time to let up, and ICAO can’t be let off the hook.

Posted in Aviation, News / 1 Response

Bloomberg-EDF analysis: Mandates plus markets could make airlines' emissions goals readily affordable

The aviation industry can affordably meet and beat its goal of halting carbon emissions growth from 2020 if it uses high-quality, low-cost carbon offsets, according to a new analysis from Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF).

Airlines’ goal of “carbon-neutral growth from 2020” could be so readily affordable that governments justifiably could hold airlines to a much tighter emissions target. Image source

Our analysis comes on the heels of a consolidated industry call for the governments of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to commit, at their next triennial September meeting, to adopt a mandatory global program to limit aviation’s carbon pollution by 2016 at the latest.

While forecasts are inherently uncertain, best estimates indicate that while new technologies, operations and infrastructure can help industry dampen emissions growth, substantial increases in aviation emissions are likely after 2020. Consequently, to meet their proposed mandatory goal of "carbon-neutral growth from 2020," it is very likely that airlines will need some kind of carbon offsetting mechanism.

An offset mechanism that limits credit supply to high-quality carbon units currently available and expected to come on-line in the future, could let airlines meet their emissions target at very modest cost. If governments adopt tough criteria ensuring that offsets represent real reductions in net carbon emissions, and if industry moves swiftly to capture those carbon units, the costs to airlines could be quite low – e.g., less than 0.5% of projected total international airline revenue in 2015, and less than a third of the fees airlines collected last year for checked bags, legroom and snacks.

In the current round of talks, the aviation industry is asking governments to mandate caps on airlines’ emissions at 2020 levels. Our analysis finds that a well-designed, high-integrity carbon offset program would make carbon-neutral growth from 2020 so affordable, that governments justifiably could hold airlines to a much tighter emissions target. That could mean putting back on the table a target the industry had proposed several years ago, namely cutting emissions 50% by 2050.

As my report co-author, Bloomberg New Energy Finance chief economist Guy Turner, said:

These findings show that the international aviation sector can control its CO2 emissions easily and cheaply by using market based mechanisms. The relatively small cost and ability to pass any costs through into ticket prices, should encourage the international aviation sector to accelerate and deepen its emission reduction pledges. More ambitious emission reductions now look much more doable, than mere stabilization from 2020.

Our analysis offers context to the costs of such a global market-based mechanism using offsets with strong environmental integrity, which the aviation industry called on ICAO last month to adopt to keep the industry’s net emissions stable from 2020 on. Such an offset program would allow the airlines to meet their emissions targets by both making emissions cuts within the aviation sector, and drawing on offsets that represent real emission cuts in other sectors.

Blog-exclusive addendum: effect on ticket prices

A well-designed global offset program, using high-quality offsets that represent real reductions in emissions, could add only a few dollars to a typical international fare:

  • From Paris (CDG) to Beijing (PEK): $1.90 – $3.00
  • From Paris (CDG) to Delhi (DEL): $1.50-$2.30
  • From Paris (CDG) to Cape Town (CPT): $2.40-$3.70
  • From Paris (CDG) to Buenos Aires (EZE): $2.70-$4.30
  • From New York (JFK) to Buenos Aires (EZE): $2.10-$3.20

Read more in our press release and the full BNEF-EDF analysis, Carbon-Neutral Growth for Aviation: At What Price?

Posted in Aviation, Emissions trading & markets, News / 3 Responses