When the International Civil Aviation Organisation kicked off its 11-day triennial assembly in Montreal in September, arguably the most compelling issue on the agenda was a pro-European submission for a draft resolution. This requested that countries take measures to protect the environment from aviation's carbon dioxide emissions.

The 179 ICAO contracting states at the assembly were being urged to take action immediately and, furthermore, to take the correct, or what Europe termed "necessary", action. Europe was in fact manoeuvring to force ICAO to come up finally with a globally acceptable market mechanism with which to harness aviation's impact on climate change, a clarion call to the world's airlines.

This came as a critical test of both ICAO's will and its ability to reduce aviation's climate impact within a timeframe that Europe considered reasonable, despite the fact that ICAO had in 2004 ruled that it would provide working rules for regional emissions trading schemes.

wind turbine  
© Mark Sykes / Science Photo Library   
Will ICAO come up with a globally acceptable solution with which to harness aviation's impact on climate change?

Europe had already made clear its threat of going it alone with a plan to include intra-European Union air travel within its existing emissions trading market from 2011 before daring to extend it to non-European carriers flying in and out of EU airports from 2012.

So the issue was not just emissions trading. The debate centred on what exactly would be the sovereignty implications of a regional scheme with an ambitious geographic scope such as the one Europe was proposing. And not surprisingly, others, led by the USA, proposed a rival resolution that countries should "refrain from unilateral environmental measures that would adversely affect the orderly and sustainable development of international civil aviation".

Europe knew its unprecedented move was never going to be popular with the USA, whose historic resistance to the target-setting tenets of the Kyoto Protocol and unswerving faith in technology-led solutions rank alongside a similarly committed front of developing nations fearing mitigation attempts would dash efforts to eliminate poverty.

Traffic growth graph

And so ICAO chiefs convened the "Friends of the President" group, a smaller select gathering representing all geographic stakeholders charged with helping the executive committee reconcile the seemingly unreconcilable. It met over many unsociable hours in Montreal, with a "friend" of a Friend of the President confiding that the usual suspects were proving intransigent: "Half the world wants limits, half the world wants technology. There is a fundamental difference between both camps."

Another observer expected Europe to be routed: "Whatever way they decide to go will determine whether Europe or the USA has the upper hand. You have to work on the basis that somebody's going to be disappointed. There's really not much common ground in the middle, but this is a UN agency we're talking about. It's not about taking unilateral action, but about achieving global solutions."


The ICAO resolution that was presented by the executive committee for rubber stamping by the assembly's plenary session on 28 September read: "The assembly...recognises that existing ICAO guidance is not sufficient at present to implement greenhouse gas emissions charges internationally, although implementation of such charges by mutual agreement of states is not precluded."

Europe was being told it could go it alone and impose its emissions regime on its own airlines, but that it would need the explicit consent of a non-EU country to extend its carbon scheme to an airline flying from outside the 27-member state bloc.

Europe, meanwhile, dispatched Luis Fonseca de Almeida, the Portuguese president of the European Civil Aviation Conference. This represents 42 countries including almost all European states, but also the EU presidency, to deliver a collective message of dismay.

"ICAO should be showing the way and setting out the regulatory framework so that the industry can plan for the future. But it has failed to do so. At the very least, we believe that the executive committee should recommend to the plenary that we establish clear, meaningful targets. Instead, we face a proposed resolution that prevents anyone from taking effective action on climate change unless all agree. This is unprecedented. And we cannot accept this position."

The resolution was passed as expected, with ICAO later confirming that while it believes market-based options are valuable tools, a majority of the delegations think states should apply emissions trading schemes only on a mutually agreed basis.

UK transport minister Ruth Kelly immediately sent a political shot across the bows, saying that Europe would demonstrate true global leadership and make good on its earlier promise to press ahead with its plans and ignore the ICAO resolution on legal grounds. "The environment cannot wait for ever. That is why we are reserving the right if an international solution is not found to act in the wider global interest by extending the EU emissions trading scheme to all flights arriving and departing from the EU," said Kelly.

The ICAO resolution has not impressed the environmental lobby. João Vieira of Brussels-based Transport and Environment, an official observer at ICAO, says that while regional schemes had been sanctioned by the agency in 2004, the mutual agreement clause effectively vetoes such schemes, as their discriminatory nature on the basis of carrier nationality would not be supported under the terms of the Chicago Convention that established ICAO.


"After a shameful decade of obstruction and inaction, ICAO must now be stripped of its environmental responsibilities. Under the terms of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, responsibility for reducing emissions from international aviation was given to ICAO. But over the last decade the organisation has successively failed to endorse, or issued negative statements on every serious policy option for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the sector," says Vieira.

With a resolution that lacked the support of nearly a quarter of the ICAO contracting states - the Europeans - ICAO rounded off its 36th general assembly with a gesture of appeasement through the creation of a new high-level group charged with pioneering an "aggressive" action plan by 2009 ahead of a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) summit designed to put in place a post-2012 climate change regime.

Weekly arrivals from USA to european airports

ICAO says this will produce strategies to reduce emissions including voluntary actions, technological advances, more efficient operations - and market-based measures.

Meanwhile, the prospect of a hybrid third option - the policy equivalent of a No Man's Land between the two camps - was proposed by an unexpected source.

Developing countries had in open sessions started talking openly of the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" (CBDR) established through the Kyoto Protocol under the UNFCCC. This recognises the differences between developed and developing states in their respective economic and technical capacity to address aviation emissions. And, as this implies that some states could seek exemptions, CBDR represents an inherently discriminatory approach.


"It was developing countries such as China and Nigeria saying they could entertain the idea of signing up to the principle of emissions trading, but wanted to first discuss how it would work," says one delegate.

A minimum threshold approach, whereby developing countries can enjoy exemptions, does in principle feature in the European scheme. This lets off the lowest emitters - which collectively represent a marginal impact on overall emissions - from significant administrative burdens.

But Andrew Steinberg, US assistant transport secretary, was unimpressed and told delegates they are wrong to expect a free ride on CBDR. "This is misleading. There is no way an emissions trading scheme that exempts developing countries can be applied under the Chicago Convention without violating its principle of non-discrimination. The Chicago Convention and UNFCCC are separate legal instruments, and one does not prevail over the other. Thus agreeing to accept the unilateral imposition of such a scheme on the hope that it will never apply to you is wishful thinking at best."

One member of a national delegation pointed out that the merest hint of the CBDR principle would be shot down by an economic superpower that would not agree to do anything with which China does not have to comply. Airbus's Global Market Forecast indicates that in terms of growth in domestic air travel alone, China will dwarf anything that the USA can muster over the next two decades (see table).

Steinberg also raised the spectre of competitive manipulation in a world where, according to the same forecast, traffic growth into western Europe over the same period will be significant. "Under the EU plan, each non-EU airline's participation will be regulated by the so called 'administering state', which is wherever it flies the most. That country will then dole out allowances to the foreign airline, thus determining how many permits the airline must purchase. Presumably, that state also decides whose emissions are de minimis and whose measures are 'equivalent'. This could empower each such state to discriminate against foreign airlines in favour of their own," says Sternberg.

An analysis by Flight Insight (see table) which shows that most Europe-bound air traffic from the USA is headed to the UK underlines US sensitivities over any new forms of control over future access to busy European airports such as London Heathrow in a seemingly liberalised open skies environment.


The recent news that the UK could move to allocate new airport slots on the basis of environmental performance of aircraft probably raised a few transatlantic flags. Even though the ICAO resolution puts an end to any immediate prospect of a globally accepted emissions trading regime, the fact that developing countries suggested there was a strong connection to be made between the principles of CBDR and ICAO's focus on equivalence is significant. This extra option could be included in a future global approach that offers a menu of prescribed actions.

Jeff Shane, ICAO assembly president and US undersecretary for transport policy, concedes that the most significant aspect of the 36th assembly was the environment. Paying tribute to Europe's effort to drive market-based measures up the agenda, he stresses the importance not only of equivalence and alludes to a collective industry response that presented a list of options.

"ICAO is nothing but a creature of its members states, but if Europe begins to impose emissions charges, if airlines have to buy permits for the privilege of flying into Europe, there will be a lot of bilateral discussions," Shane says. "ICAO is beginning a new chapter in its history. The new high-level group on climate change and international aviation will be charged with establishing a programme of actions to reduce aviation's carbon footprint in a way it has never been done before. A lot of things are being done around the world and what we want to do is to put together a cookbook with real goals."

Some argue that the UNFCCC is perhaps better placed to set emissions targets for aviation in a post-2012 world, with it falling to ICAO to advise on technical best practice and develop tools such as market-based measures with which to manage the meeting of sector targets.

One area of interest will be if Europe moves to adapt further its legislative proposal in a bid to render it more acceptable to the developing world. A senior source at the European Commission says it genuinely believes that it is possible to combine the CBDR principle within the Chicago Convention.

"We realise that developing countries wanted to go further in Montreal and we are ready to explore other possibilities. European member states would, however, want to see that there was interest, would have to receive a signal, a buy-in of the principle," he says.

Clouds of doubt enveloped ICAO's environmental policies at the Montreal conference

Source: Flight International