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Aviation breakthrough in combatting climate change

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013
Governments unanimously approve market-based mechanism for aviation to combat climate change by Felix von Geyer in Montreal
A major breakthrough in an agreement to tackle greenhouse gas emissions was made in Montreal on Friday as the member countries of the International Civil Aviation Organization unanimously agreed a Decision to Develop a market-based mechanism (MBM) to regulate and reduce global greenhouse gas emissions from aviation at ICAO’s 38th General Assembly.
The proposals will be put to ICAO by 2016 when a Decision to Implement for 2020 will be agreed.
“The devil as always will be in the detail” said ICAO Secretary General Raymond Benjamin who, acknowledging the unheralded unanimity among members on the issue of climate change, declared to much laughter: “The devil  has taken a vacation.”
Indeed, the agreement represents a major step in agreeing a global framework to addressing climate and is the first time that all governments have embraced a decision to develop a market-based mechanism and is also the first time that a sectoral approach to addressing climate change has been taken on a global scale.
ICAO has to report its proposed action to address the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change this year under a decision agreed at the UN Climate Change Conference in Durban in 2011.
Going into the Assembly that started last Tuesday, the options for regulating emissions were to introduce carbon offset; offsets with revenues or a full-out market-based mechanism such as a cap and trade similar to the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme that looked to include all aviaiton emissions into its EU ETS for phase III starting in 2013.
Aviation emissions account for approximately 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions but the specifics of aviation emissions means that their emissions actually contribute an estimated 5% of climate forcing. Until recently, it was thought that aviation could only reduce its emissions through better navigation and more direct flights. However, in the past five years the advent of biofuels have shown they can provide a safe alternative to traditional kerosene-based jetfuel while other technologies such as Gas-to-Liquids as developed by Shell in Qatar are available and possible microalgae developments that could arguably provide a carbon-neutral jetfuel are possible.
How ICAO will develop the various proposals is the “Devil in the detail” that Benjamin mentioned. Consensus is that ICAO will need to cap the carbon content of fuel against the energy content of fuel as it comes to market, which in the case of civil aviation the market would be an ICAO bunker near the airports. This in effect would look to increase the energy density of fuel against the carbon emissions and would require an assessment of what the biofuel and alternative fuel possibilities are and whether these could be made globally available while also needing to address infrastructure issues such as pipelines and so forth.
The importance of Friday’s agreement cannot however be undermined when climate polictics have divided nations, as witnessed at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009 that was meant to usher in a comprehensive global agreement that is now deferred to 2015 as again agreed in Durban.
A total of seventy-two reservations were raised by countries, many reservations revolving around familiar dividing lines such as Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR). Saudi Arabia, traditionally the world’s largest oil producer and highest producer of greenhouse gas emissions stating that they did not want to be burdened by costs at the expense of their society and economy. India, traditionally an obstacle in the path of climate consensus due to its need to alleviate poverty and its dependence on fossil fuels, also expressed its concerns over CBDR, mutual consent and how market-based mechanisms need to pass through the test of feasibility.
Canada expressed its reservation on the inclusion of CBDR as it was incompatible with international aviation activities.
Last week’s release by the International Panel on Climate Change indicated the rate and pace of climate change has surpassed scientists’ original expectations. What the IPCC Working Group 1 report did not say, however is: “You know you can commodify carbon emissions; but you can never commodify time.”