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Comment: Do it or rue it

If the International Civil Aviation Organisation's general assembly, taking place now in Montreal, were to set the framework for a global agreement on climate change policy for world air transport, aviation would be the only industry on the planet to have set itself challenging emissions reduction targets for the future.

Dream on, we hear you say. An agreement on emissions targets and policy is certainly the toughest task the assembly has before it this year. But if it could be achieved, and the proposals could be presented at December's United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change assembly in Mexico City, it would certainly temper the excessive claims of the many organisations and lobbyists who paint commercial air transport as the ultimate environmental ogre.

So aviation has an opportunity to show the world how it's done. That would be no bad thing, because if aviation does not come up with a credible plan of its own, it will have one forced upon it. Indeed, even if ICAO were to achieve its agreement, it would be naive to believe that all the environmental lobbyists would be so impressed that they would drop their demands. But governments, and even the UNFCCC, which have to make decisions that balance the needs of the economy and the environment, would be impressed.

International Air Transport Association director general Giovanni Bisignani has just warned the industry: "If this assembly ends without an agreement, the next opportunity is 2013. Meanwhile the industry would be faced with a growing patchwork of conflicting and overlapping measures. For example, against global opposition, Europe would have to try to move forward with its unilateral emissions trading scheme."

But Bisignani knows that agreement is not a foregone conclusion. He says: "The biggest challenge for this assembly is to reach an agreement on a global solution to manage emissions from international aviation. A united aviation industry of airlines, airports, air navigation service providers, manufacturers and general aviation has made ambitious commitments to cap and eventually cut its emissions. To be successful, governments must endorse these commitments in a globally agreed framework." If self-regulation is seen to be effective and sufficiently ambitious, governments will permit it, especially for an industry that sets an example. Governments and the UN already have their hands full trying to get the world to agree on credible global warming policies. They will tend to prioritise the industries that are doing the least.