After years of hair-splitting debate and tactical vacillation, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) finally has agreed to what it characterized as the first global approach to reducing air transport’s effect on climate change. Signing what it calls “a road map for action” at the end of its 37th assembly on October 8, the UN body has supposedly galvanized its 190 member states to take a common approach to cutting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from aircraft engines. But fresh argument is already raging as to whether the multilateral development weakens or strengthens the European Union’s intention to impose its emissions trading scheme (ETS) on all aircraft using its airspace from 2012.
EU transport commissioner Siim Kallas was quick to claim that the ICAO agreement effectively provides retrospective validation of Europe’s decision to go it alone with its ETS cap-and-trade system. In fact, ICAO’s new resolution does call for the creation of a global market-based measures scheme (which could be equivalent to ETS) and says the organization will review plans for the measure at its next assembly in 2013. The EU has always said that it will exempt non-European operators from its ETS if their own national governments have implemented a comparable system, but it continues to make clear that it will not defer ETS implementation while it waits to see if such alternatives ever materialize.
On the other hand, the U.S. Air Transport Association, which is now taking legal action against the European ETS in both the European Court of Justice and the UK High Court, has argued that ICAO’s new resolution still requires action to be taken “by mutual consent” and that the Europeans have secured no such consent for ETS. It argues that the ICAO decision effectively backs its long-standing claim that no action to reduce CO2 emissions should begin until it becomes enforceable worldwide, thereby maintaining a level competitive playing field. The EU lost patience with that approach when it unveiled its ETS–arguing that the ATA has taken a cynical position intended to set the bar for common action so high that it will never actually happen.
ICAO has expressed a commitment to achieving a 2-percent annual fuel efficiency improvement up to 2050, as well as a global framework for the development and deployment of sustainable alternative fuels for aviation, and a target of 2013 to introduce a specific world standard covering carbon dioxide (CO2) limits for aircraft engines. But whatever ICAO’s collective intentions might be, only national governments can turn the theory into practice. Judging by the complete failure of last year’s UN Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, political leaders cannot be counted on to deliver.