ICAO states clinch breakthrough on setting more ambitious goals to reduce international aviation emissions

ICAO states clinch breakthrough on setting more ambitious goals to reduce international aviation emissions | ICAO 37th Assembly

Mon 11 Oct 2010 – A landmark agreement, even though far from perfect, was reached by the 190 contracting states of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on the final day of its 37th Assembly. After over a decade of deliberations, states passed through a resolution that commits them to achieving a global annual average fuel efficiency improvement of 2 percent until 2020 and a similar aspirational improvement thereafter until 2050. The controversial target of achieving carbon-neutral growth (CNG) in global net emissions from international aviation from 2020 – which had been at the centre of disagreements between states – was also adopted. However, CNG remains aspirational and although a collective global goal it appears the burden of achieving it will have to be shouldered by the developed nations. Market-based measures are recognized in the agreement but Europe entered a ‘reservation’, or objection, over clauses referring to guiding principles that would appear in conflict with the Aviation EU ETS due to start in 2012.


The goals are not mandatory and states are required to “strive” to achieve the medium-term CNG goal and no specific obligations are to be attributed to individual states. Goals must also take into account the special circumstances and respective capabilities of developing countries, and that “some states may take more ambitious actions prior to 2020, which may offset an increase in emissions from the growth of air transport in developing states.”


Confusingly, the clause referring to the aspirational goal of achieving net carbon emissions from 2020 at the same level also recognizes “that emissions may increase due to the expected growth in international air traffic until lower emitting technologies and fuels and other mitigating measures are developed and deployed.”


Belgium, on behalf of the EU and ECAC states, entered a ‘reservation’ on the CNG resolution clause, on the grounds that Europe maintains a 10% reduction in aviation emissions by 2020 over 2005 levels is required to meet overall international climate change goals, and therefore the aspirational and unenforceable CNG goal is not enough. A reservation allows a state to be party to an agreement whilst still objecting and refusing to be bound to certain elements.


In a statement issued after the Assembly, EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard commented: “The goal is not as ambitious as Europe thinks it should be, but at the same time ICAO has recognized that some states may take more ambitious actions prior to 2020.”


ICAO is requested by states to explore the feasibility of a long term (to 2050) global aspirational goal and report on progress at the next Assembly in 2013.


States are “encouraged” to submit action plans to ICAO by the end of June 2012 outlining their policies and proposed course of action towards reducing and reporting on their international aviation CO2 emissions. A ‘de minimis’ threshold will apply in which those states with international aviation activity constituting less than 1% of total global revenue ton kilometres will not be required to submit action plans towards achieving the global goals unless they agree voluntarily. The commercial operators of those ‘de minimis’ states should also qualify for exemption from the application of national, regional and global level market-based measures (MBMs) such as emissions trading schemes.


With the support of member states, ICAO is required to undertake work to develop a framework for international aviation MBMs by the next Assembly. In the meantime, the resolution “urges” states to respect the 15 guiding principles when designing new and existing MBMs and “to engage in constructive bilateral and/or multilateral consultations and negotiations with other states to reach an agreement.” It also urges states to review existing and planned MBMs for international aviation to ensure their consistency with the principles.


This would appear to be aimed at Europe’s Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS), the only such MBM currently underway that applies to international aviation. As a result, the EU has entered a reservation on these clauses.


The European Commission claimed after the Assembly that the EU ETS was consistent with all 15 principles and believes it now has the green light to launch the scheme in 2012.


“Crucially, ICAO has refrained from language which would make the application of the EU’s ETS to their airlines dependent on the mutual agreement of other states,” maintained the Commission. “It was this requirement that led to a stalemate at the last ICAO Assembly in 2007. This time, the EU agreed to engage constructively in dialogue with third countries during the implementation of its ETS, notably regarding how to deal with emissions from incoming flights from third countries.”


Said Hedegaard: “Critically, the deal is a good basis for proceeding swiftly with the inclusion of aviation in the EU’s ETS from 2012 as foreseen by the EU legislation in force.”


The concept of ‘mutual agreement’ between states on the implementation of MBMs was mooted by the United States, along with Canada and Mexico, in the lead up to the Assembly. The unilateral inclusion of carriers from third countries has led to legal action against the EU (specifically, the UK) from major US airlines, led by the Air Transport Association (ATA).


Contrary to the EU’s interpretation of the ICAO agreement, Nancy Young, ATA’s Vice President, Environmental Affairs, said the Assembly resolution had recognized the need for and importance of agreement between states before emissions trading or other MBMs could be imposed on the airlines of others.


“Whilst telling that all states except European states embrace the mutual agreement tenant, the new resolution neither strengthens nor weakens our challenge to the unilateral application of the EU ETS to our airlines,” she said. “The basis for our case lies in treaty and other international laws, which are unchanged by the new resolution. At bottom, the EU and its member states are violating the Chicago Convention, customary international law, the US-EU bilateral air services agreement and their agreed obligations under the Kyoto Protocol in the way they are applying the EU ETS to our airlines.”


Other important elements of the ICAO resolution include requests to the ICAO Council for the development of a global CO2 standard for aircraft by 2013 and processes and mechanisms to facilitate technical and financial assistance to developing countries.


“This agreement demonstrates what can be achieved when parties with divergent and even conflicting views are determined to progress towards results that are in the best interest of an industry as critical to the world economy as aviation,” commented Roberto Kobeh González, the President of the ICAO Council.


The resolution will be presented at the UNFCCC COP 16 climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, which start on November 29.


“We feel that the Assembly resolution and related decisions are good examples of the spirit of cooperation that can make a substantial contribution to the UNFCCC discussions,” said Kobeh.




ICAO Report of the Executive Committee on climate change and Assembly resolution (pdf)

European Commission statement on ICAO Assembly resolution



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