Environment & Energy Report

UN Body to Vote on Cutting Aviation Greenhouse Gases

Sept. 30, 2019, 12:56 AM

A United Nations body inched closer to establishing a long-term goal for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation and expanding its response to climate change Sept. 29.

The International Civil Aviation Organization’s executive committee agreed on a handful of resolutions to send to the organization’s plenary for a vote this week as the global aviation industry undergoes increased scrutiny for its impact on global warming.

The committee approved resolutions to agree on a long-term greenhouse gas emissions goal by 2022; declare its offsetting scheme for emissions the only global plan to avoid duplication by regional and national schemes; examine the life-cycle impacts of biofuels for aviation; and wait for a technical committee to wrap up its studies before looking into global rules for the re-introduction of supersonic commercial jets.

The Montreal-based ICAO is holding its 181-nation assembly until Oct. 4, setting the organization’s policy direction for the next three years.

Move Delayed by Climate Protest

China, Russia, and India raised extensive concerns on the resolutions dealing with long-term emissions goals and the offsetting scheme during the meeting, which had to be moved to a Sunday after climate change marches led by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg forced the organization to cancel meetings Friday.

“Up to now, we find no scientific support for this long-term goal, so we are very, very cautious about it,” said Guo Xiaofeng, a first secretary with China’s delegation at the organization, in an interview Sept. 29.

The resolutions enjoyed broad support from most countries at the executive committee, but nations can still change their minds before a meeting of all assembly delegations Oct. 2 that will seek to make them official ICAO policy.

Environmental groups have pointed out that other branches of the U.N. have criticized the global aviation industry for lagging behind other sectors in embracing changes that would cut greenhouse gas emissions. International aviation was not included in the U.N.'s 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

Air Travel Expected to Grow Rapidly

The airline industry predicts major growth over the next decades that would double the number of annual passengers to 8.2 billion in 2037 compared to last year.

The sector has pushed nations to enter ICAO’s greenhouse gas cutting plan—called the carbon offsetting and reduction for international aviation or CORSIA—in the hopes of weakening calls to curb flying.

Eighty-one countries have agreed to join a pilot phase of CORSIA beginning in 2021, but China, India, and Russia oppose key pillars of the plan, and some countries have created their own charges on plane emissions that companies say is undermining support for CORSIA.

“This success is in danger because several states are piling so-called green taxes, measures, levies on travelers,” International Air Transport Association director and CEO Alexandre de Juniac said before the meetings.

Conflict With Existing EU Aviation Program

Chief among those other charges is the European Union’s aviation emissions trading system, which has applied to flights within Europe since 2012.

European Union countries did not raise concerns at the executive council meeting Sept. 29 about a resolution that declares CORSIA the only global offsetting plan for international flights, which some attendees said could one day result in the U.N. plan covering emissions from flights between EU countries instead of the EU plan.

Since key elements of CORSIA are still being decided by a technical body of ICAO, it’s too early to tell how the EU issue will be resolved, Kevin Welsh, a top official in the U.S. delegation, said in an interview Sept. 29.

“That’s certainly still an outstanding issue that’s on everybody’s mind,” said Welsh, executive director at the office of environment and energy at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

Finland, which is leading the EU delegation at the two-week assembly, declined comment on the issue because of its sensitivity, senior specialist with the Ministry of Transport and Communications Janne Manttari wrote in an email Sept. 29.

The resolution’s effect would be increased regulatory uncertainty for airlines as they wait and see what emissions scheme will cover international flights in Europe less than two years from now, said Brad Schallert, a deputy director at the World Wildlife Fund, in an interview Sept. 29.

Removing airline permits from the European carbon market could also result in a 14% drop in the price of European emission allowances by 2021, according to a BloombergNEF analysis.

Aviation Biofuels

The executive committee passed a resolution endorsing the use of sustainability criteria for aviation biofuels, which ICAO envisions accounting for the vast majority of emissions cuts from flights by 2035.

The organization estimates production of the fuels could rise from 6.45 million liters per year in the 2016-2018 period to around 8 billion liters by 2032, but state subsidies for the fuels currently favor ground transport over air.

The resolution would allow for a better determination of whether the fuels are actually reducing environmental impacts, since they can affect other things like land use, said Annie Petsonk, international counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Supersonic Jets

The executive council also recommended ICAO wait for a technical body to finish research on the noise and environmental impacts of commercial supersonic jets before tackling global rules for the planes.

Three companies in the U.S. are leading the push to bring supersonics back to the market within the next five to 10 years.

The U.S. opposes using the same environmental rules used for traditional planes on supersonics, which European countries say must be done to keep standards from going backward.

The FAA is preparing some domestic U.S. regulations, but international rules are necessary to help manufacturers and operators work abroad, said Welsh, the U.S. delegate.

The International Air Transport Association, the world’s top airplane industry group, declined comment on the resolutions before the assembly concludes.

To contact the reporter on this story: James Munson in Toronto at correspondents@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com;

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