Comment: Green sidestep

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The tensions over whether carbon trading should be a part of air transport's efforts to reduce its emissions mounted at the recent ICAO assembly. European moves for early adoption were thwarted, but at what future cost for the industry?

The Maxjet Airways captain is trying, and failing, to be upbeat: "Ladies and gentlemen, well we've been able to push back here at New York on time but the fog is bad out here at JFK. We've got 60 aircraft in front of us waiting to take off so it will be an hour or so before we reach the head of the queue."

The 767 did indeed take over an hour to clear JFK on its way to London Stansted. And even though this captain did shut off the engines for a while, as others surely did too, that night in New York was a case of yet another tragic waste of fuel those 60 aircraft consumed getting precisely nowhere fast. Of course this is normal. Bad weather and a host of other factors conspire every day, somewhere on the planet, to play havoc with the smooth running of air ­transport.

There is so much wasted fuel in this bewilderingly complex system that airlines have been going hoarse for years arguing that the system itself must be improved. The benefits are obvious: lower fuel burn equals lower costs and fewer emissions.

Strategies to improve this industry flaw came to the fore during ICAO's recent Assembly in Montreal. The centrepiece of the meeting, which sets out international aviation's priorities for the coming years, was how to achieve emissions reductions. There are two schools of thought. Europe is pressing for the use of market-based measures - such as emissions trading - possibly as early as 2010. Almost everyone else disagrees, arguing that emissions trading must be introduced at a global level or not at all.

Unsurprisingly the rest won at ICAO as country after country rejected Europe's plea on trading, leaving it in the words of the Association of European Airlines as "isolated". The shame for ICAO is that its mandate of translating its excellent work on safety into ­excellent work on the environment is weak. It says it will look at market measures like emissions trading, but it relies on trotting out the same old unconvincing messages on system efficiencies and improvements.

Yes these will come, but the pace of change is painfully slow. And yes, technological breakthroughs will bring benefits, but these too are limited. The argument goes that all of these, plus the stick of emissions trading, are all needed to make meaningful progress on emissions reduction.

So what happens next? Can the airline lobby that so successfully fought off the OK for emissions trading at this point breathe easy? The battle will turn to Europe, where the European Commission is undeterred by the outcome in Montreal. "ICAO has made an important contribution to safer and more secure air transport but its record on aircraft emissions is simply not good enough," said Jacques Barrot, Europe's transport commissioner. The EC says it is "standing firm on ambitious action to cut aviation emissions".

There appears genuine international frustration at Europe's dogged insistence on pressing ahead with its emissions trading plan. "Far from setting a good example, such unilateral action by Europe would inevitably lead to protracted international disputes, and is certainly not constructive," said Andrew Herdman, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines.

On a positive note the industry has broadly moved from denial on the environment to an acceptance that it has to act to reduce emissions. IATA's big strategic vision for the environment - zero emissions in 50 years - expressed at its 2007 annual meeting, demonstrates how far attitudes have shifted.

On the negative side, recent events fuel the suspicion that the industry is secretly relieved that emissions trading has been shelved at the global level. Looking back, the industry will see that it successfully avoided emissions trading this year. But in rugby terms, the sidestep to evade being tackled on this issue will only work for so long. One day the big hit will come, and it will hurt.

The environment landing page:

Latin Forum daily paper

The Airline Business team will be at the Latin American Leaders Forum in Cancun, Mexico in November producing a daily newspaper for the event. This is the second year it will publish live from the forum with all the news from the conference podium. Visit our website to read the daily papers from 7 November.