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A Senate Transportation Committee hearing tomorrow will be the latest show of ire against the European Union’s effort to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation through its mandatory Emission Trading System (EU ETS). From Beijing to Delhi to Washington, governments claim the EU’s unilateral move violates international aviation law.

Indeed, in Washington, this is one of the rare issues these days where Democrats and Republicans find themselves on the same side opposing the EU’s action. The Obama Administration has weighed in with a strongly worded letter from Secretaries Clinton and LaHood urging the EU to drop its unilateral efforts and to work through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to reduce aviation sector emissions. 

But if tomorrow’s hearing before the Senate Transportation Committee is simply another round of EU-bashing, it will be a missed opportunity to focus on the one solution that virtually everybody (including the EU) appears to support—effective action by ICAO.  Frustrated by years of inaction within ICAO, the real motivation behind the EU’s move may be to reignite efforts to reach agreement within ICAO.

Whether or not ICAO is up to the challenge of developing an effective global strategy to limit emissions from this fast growing sector remains to be seen.

ICAO’s role in climate can be traced back to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (Article 2.2), which essentially designated it (and the International Maritime Organization for emissions from shipping) as the lead entities for tackling emissions from international bunker fuels. Not surprisingly, as the United Nation’s lead agency on matters related to aviation, ICAO warmly embraced the role carved out for it under the climate treaty. (For full disclosure, I played a small role in ICAO’s early efforts as the co-chair for the first six years of a working group created specifically to examine the use of market-based measures such as emissions trading, charges and voluntary programs to limit carbon dioxide emissions.)

In recent years, ICAO has begun to make progress. In 2010, it adopted a global aspirational goal of improving fuel efficiency by 2 percent per year and stabilizing carbon dioxide emissions at 2020 levels (Resolution A37-19). ICAO also is:

  • Developing a CO2 aircraft certification standard with the goal of adoption by 2013;
  • Coordinating efforts to facilitate enhanced navigational systems (known as NextGen in the US) that will improve fuel efficiency through better air traffic management, such as more direct flight paths;
  • Spurring the development and certification of alternative fuels as long-term substitutes for today’s fossil-based jet fuel; and
  • Working with governments to prepare national action plans identifying measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the sector.

The private sector is also contributing. Given that fuel represents 35 percent of operating costs, airframe and engine manufacturers have continued longstanding efforts to enhance fuel efficiency. For example, Boeing’s newest plane, the 787 Dreamliner, achieves a 20 percent gain over comparable planes, in part through the widespread use of lighter composite materials.

Many opposing the EU ETS point to these efforts as a reasonable response to the sector’s contribution to climate change—it accounts for roughly 2-3 percent of global CO2 emissions.

Yet those pushing for stronger ICAO action raise legitimate concerns. They point out that the sector’s emissions are equivalent to those of countries like Germany or South Korea, and are the fastest growing of any sector. (ICAO estimates that carbon dioxide emissions are likely to grow 3-4 percent annually for the next few decades with absolute growth in emissions by 2036 of 2.5-2.9 times 2006 baseline levels.)

They also note that ICAO’s pollution standards historically have been based on existing technology, reflecting business as usual rather than driving technological change.  The fuel efficiency goal adopted by ICAO is not binding in any way and the projected growth in flights will more than offset gains in efficiency. As a result, emissions  are projected to keep rising. The work on alterative fuels is important, but not likely to result in a significant switchover for decades unless their costs dramatically drop and fossil fuel costs substantially rise. 

Getting to an effective comprehensive agreement will not be an easy task for ICAO. Further complicating matters is the need to somehow reconcile the ICAO principle that its actions apply universally to all nations with the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Some have proposed that the Article 84 dispute resolution process under the Chicago Convention would be an appropriate mechanism for resolving this conflict.

ICAO now has a process underway to further consider market-based measures, and the Secretary General is committed to action by the Council this year and by the Assembly in 2013. Even if the EU has succeeded in lighting a fire under ICAO, success is far from guaranteed. A good start would be a little less uproar over the EU ETS—and far more focus on what ICAO can achieve, and the leadership to make it happen.

Image Credit: Stephen Finn/Shutterstock