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ICAO under pressure to deliver global emissions framework

Pressure on the International Civil Aviation Organisation to adopt a global framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from commercial aviation at its upcoming assembly has reached boiling point.

Aviation and aerospace leaders are warning that for the industry to stand a realistic chance of achieving its emissions reduction targets, ICAO must deliver a comprehensive set of regulations governing emissions that can then be endorsed at the next United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change summit in Mexico in December.

The targets set by the International Air Transport Association include improving fuel efficiency in the airline industry by 1.5% a year between 2010 and 2020, achieving carbon-neutral growth from 2020 and reducing emissions by 50% over 2005 levels by 2050.

This year's Aviation and Environment Summit in Geneva was well-timed for the industry to push its message to ICAO, taking place 11 days before the 37th ICAO Assembly kicks off in Montreal on 28 September.

IATA director general Giovanni Bisignani is optimistic that a recent change in leadership at the UNFCCC increases the chances that the 16th Conference of the Parties meeting in Cancun, Mexico - scheduled to run from 29 November-10 December 2010 - will result in the approval of a global framework for aviation.

"The change in leadership from Yvo de Boer to Christiana Figueres opens a new phase," says Bisignani. "We are working well with her and she is supporting IATA's efforts. Under executive secretary Figueres, there is a willingness to proactively engage industry to deliver results."

Figueres, in a pre-recorded message to the Geneva conference, concurred that "to address climate change effectively, a comprehensive global approach is needed that ensures aviation continues to deliver social and economic benefits while avoiding a patchwork of conflicting and potentially overlapping national and regional policies".

There has, therefore, "never been a better time than [the 37th ICAO Assembly] for governments through ICAO to deliver a global solution on aviation and climate change", adds Bisignani.

But getting governments to agree on a universal set of principles to reduce emissions from aviation will not be easy. Nancy Young, vice-president of environmental affairs at the Air Transport Association of America, describes aviation regulation as a "multi-layered chess board" which, in the absence of a global emissions framework, is "a chess game without rules".

"I've got my fingers and toes crossed that we will manage to pull off a success at ICAO, but it's going to be difficult," says John Byerly, deputy assistant secretary of state for transportation affairs at the US Department of State. Byerly stresses that ICAO "has an obligation to come up with a global framework" and failure to reach consensus would result in "absolute chaos".

However, Robert Greenhill, managing director and chief business officer at the World Economic Forum, cautions against making the elusive ICAO global framework the be-all and end-all of achieving emissions reduction targets. "If there is no agreement, it can't be used as an excuse not to move forward with sectoral solutions," he says, adding that other industries "that don't have the opportunities ICAO offers" have moved ahead with their own initiatives.

Air Transport Action Group executive director Paul Steele admitted during the conference that carbon offsets may be needed if IATA is to meet its goal of achieving carbon neutral growth by 2020. While noting that biofuels "have the potential to reduce the industry's carbon footprint by 80%", Steele says that the necessary scaling up and commercialisation of alternative fuels remains "a big challenge". He concedes that "we may need offsets to help reach the 2020 carbon neutral growth target".

The airline industry is also facing political pressure to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions in the short term. "Time is not on our side. To address climate change effectively, we also need to see significant emission reductions before 2020," says the UNFCCC's Figueres. Market-based measures as part of a global framework could close this gap, adds Figueres, and the industry should urge the ICAO Assembly to "develop and strengthen" the role of such measures.

One of the most controversial market-based measures is the European Union's plan to include aviation in its emissions trading scheme from 2012. ICAO has come under fire for failing to produce guidelines for a global emissions trading scheme, which could replace the various regional schemes that have been emerging around the world.

In addition to the divisions that have arisen over emissions trading, Steele points out that there remains a "huge political divide" over the targets for emissions reductions in the airline industry. IATA's planned 1.5% annual target is at odds with the 2% annual efficiency goal agreed at last year's ICAO meeting, while its carbon-neutral growth target from 2020 at 2020 levels differs from the US Government's goal to achieve carbon neutral growth from 2020 using 2005 emissions as the baseline.

Steele believes ICAO "has the tools to deal with these differences", and is urging the body "to build bridges as we go ahead". Byerly's message to ICAO is a little stronger: "Failure is not an option".