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Carbon-free skies

Jose Maria Figueres (Environment) / 15 March 2012

It was once said of the battle to fight climate change that there is no silver bullet – there is only silver buckshot. But, while political leaders have been loaded for bear when it comes to many industries, they have thus far been unable or unwilling to take aim at the impact of aviation.

Little has been done to make the aviation industry pay for its negative effect on the environment. It is largely exempt from fuel tax, and it is not charged for the impact of its carbon-dioxide emissions on climate change.

Yet, according to a report published by the International Panel on Climate Change, the airline industry is responsible for 4.9 per cent of all human-caused global warming worldwide. That figure is high, and it is growing rapidly. Airlines’ CO2 emissions rose by 11.2 per cent from 2005 to 2010, despite a severe global recession during this period.

The urgency of the problem makes it all the more galling that in Moscow last month, 26 countries, including Russia, the United States, India, and China, signed a declaration that threatens to kill the only legislation that would address it.

The meeting’s focus was its participants’ opposition to the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which, as of January 1, now includes aviation. The European Union has been trying since 1997 to achieve a global agreement on aviation emissions through the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Many of the same countries that signed the declaration in Moscow opposing the EU’s new carbon-pricing mechanism have also blocked the idea of a global agreement.

The principal objection raised by those who met in Moscow is that the ETS impinges on non-EU countries’ sovereignty, because, by capping their airlines’ carbon allowances for flights to and from the EU, it imposes its rules on their turf. The argument seems valid, except that the Europeans would willingly suspend their scheme if a global, effective, and non-discriminatory solution were agreed upon.

Some of the countries represented at the Moscow meeting also claim that the ETS is a tax on the poor. Why, they ask, should countries that are not responsible for causing the climate-change problem now be forced to pay to solve it?

But, according to the European Commission, the ETS does not impose an unfair burden on the developing world. The Commission points out that EU and US flights produce more than 75 per cent of the emissions from flights entering or leaving Europe. Of the 191 ICAO member countries, 98 would be virtually exempt.

We should also remember that it is not the poor who fly. The ICAO’s own figures show that far less than 10 per cent of the world’s seven billion inhabitants use air transport at least once per year. The €1.50-€7.52 increase in the cost of a one-way flight from Beijing to Paris would be negligible to those passengers.

How the revenue from the ETS will be used, however, is another question. The EU needs to discuss with developing countries how the revenue raised can be channeled to help poor countries’ efforts to adapt to climate change and develop in cleaner ways.

In fact, limiting aviation emissions would cost the rich, but benefit the poor. A well-structured global aviation contract could generate a significant amount of finance for climate-change measures in developing countries. It is absurd that the likes of Cuba and Uganda are among the Moscow declaration’s signatories, given that they stand to be among the main beneficiaries of the ETS.

When the United Nations Secretary-General’s advisory group investigated how to raise money to pay for climate-change mitigation and adaptation in developing countries, its members singled out instruments that address international aviation and shipping emissions as one of the most productive methods. The EU should urgently meet with developing countries and reach an agreement on how to direct a share of ETS revenue, including from aviation, towards raising the necessary finance. The EU scheme is not perfect, but it has proven very useful in forcing the ICAO to acknowledge the importance of aviation emissions. To destroy the ETS now would be to disable the only mechanism that has managed to create any momentum in discussions that have been dragging on for two decades. If the 26 countries that signed the declaration are serious about addressing carbon emissions, they should use the ETS as a bridge to an even better, global solution.

Threatening the EU and creating confusion for airlines around the world will help no one. Instead, the signatories should act constructively before their meeting in Saudi Arabia this summer to ensure that the ICAO devises a global aviation-emissions system that is equitable, non-discriminatory, and, most importantly, better for the planet and the poor. If they do, we will all benefit – flyers and non-flyers alike.

Jose Maria Figueres is a trustee for DARA, and was president of Costa Rica from 1994 to 1998

© Project Syndicate

 
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