© Alisdair McDonald/Rex Features

Pronouncements of praise for the achievements of the Copenhagen climate change conference in December are few, but they exist. One significant voice in the energy industry says that "it may mark the emergence of greater realism in the climate debate".

The aviation industry has not quite damned Copenhagen with faint praise, but has given its approval politely. As the International Air Transport Association has recently pointed out: "Aviation emissions were not addressed specifically in the accord."

Perhaps aviation's limited praise for the Copenhagen conference betrays relief that no new decisions about the industry's emissions were made. But although the resulting accord may not have advanced policies concerning aviation emissions, it has changed the global policymaking landscape, which is likely to affect the way that decisions will be made about individual industrial sectors, aviation included, and it will certainly influence the rate of progress.

To understand the new context believed by some to have been created by Copenhagen, it is worth looking at a recent speech about the whole energy use landscape by Tony Hayward, chief executive of petrochemical giant BP. Addressing the London Business School on the subject of energy security for the future, he praised Copenhagen for being a significant step forward. He said: "Many people suggest it was a failure. I don't agree."


Hayward's view of the conference is that "of course it didn't meet some of the more extravagant expectations. But for the first time since the climate debate began in earnest 20 years ago, the vast majority of countries are lined up and heading in the same direction - most importantly China and the USA are on board.

"This is a huge step forward. Only two years ago, climate change just didn't feature on the Washington agenda, and while China's leaders were beginning to take domestic actions, they were unwilling to commit to them on the world stage. Now they are both politically committed to a negotiating process with a timetable and an agreed goal - and more importantly they are taking real and significant action on the ground. Hundreds of billions of dollars are beginning to flow into renewable energy and efforts to dramatically improve energy efficiency."

He added: "My third reason for not joining the post-Copenhagen detractors is this: I have a feeling it may mark the emergence of greater realism in the climate debate. There is a dawning realisation that we can't afford to be paralysed by the absence of agreed targets for 2030 or 2050. Individual governments need to act regardless of whether there is a global treaty. In fact, the key to action is alignment, rather than agreement - moving in the same direction, not necessarily in lock-step."

His theme is that the three keys to a secure energy future are diversity, efficiency gains in use and investment. He warns, meanwhile, that a balanced approach is important to avoid energy marketplace pain. He says: "The crux of the matter is this. If policy makers encourage investment - whether in low-carbon energy or fossil fuels - then investment will flow, but if it doesn't then the risk is that spare capacity will dwindle and we will return to the price volatility we saw in 2008."

If Hayward is right, that is the global environment in which emissions policy for aviation will be made. And if the "greater realism" he detects were to be sustained, it is possible that aviation's estimated 2% contribution to global carbon dioxide emissions could assume a more proportionate place in policymaking priorities. Aviation is not exactly the low-hanging fruit as far as emissions reduction is concerned, because so much recent improvement is in the bag, and so much more for the future has already been contracted.

Meanwhile, airlines in Europe have embraced the principle of emissions trading, if with reservations on its geographical and political scope. The argument now is only about when and how. There may be a 2012 implementation date, but there is a great deal yet to be finalised about who participates. European Union-based airlines will have to, but whether for all routes or for intra-European only is not clear. And whether foreign carriers flying into or through EU airspace can be persuaded to participate is another unanswered question.

Looking back two years at what was going on at the first Global Carbon Market Forum meeting in Brussels in May 2008, hindsight now reveals that the event was taking place during the last few months of a different economic world. Jos Delbeke, deputy director general, directorate general of the environment at the European Commission said then: "Whilst the focus on the design and implementation of carbon markets features ever more prominently in climate policy, around the world eyes are turning to Copenhagen and 2009.

"The post-2012 climate framework, which the international community is committed to agree by the end of next year in Copenhagen, will define the international political framework for the evolution of the global carbon market at least for the next decade. We can expect this to set the level of ambition for collective international action and individual domestic action - with economy-wide targets for emissions cuts from developed countries, as well as some mechanisms to incentivise and finance mitigation and adaptation action in developing economies."

The post-Copenhagen world knows that the envisaged "framework" does not exist. Yet, Hayward says a rigid framework is unnecessary, and things have changed, just not in the way the EC had in mind two years ago. Certainly none of the delegates at the conference was brandishing climate-change denial.

At the conference, IATA's director general Giovanni Bisignani found more "realism" than he expected, commenting at the time: "We came to Copenhagen to be part of the deal and we were encouraged by the level of support for the industry's global sectoral approach and targets. We will continue to press states to include these global targets in any future deal," said Bisignani. "Airlines, airports, air navigation service providers and manufacturers are reinforced in their commitment to improve fuel efficiency by an average of 1.5% per year to 2020, to stabilise carbon emissions from 2020 with carbon-neutral growth, and also to a net reduction in carbon emissions of 50% by 2050 compared to 2005."

Copenhagen protesters
© KPA Zuma/Rex Features

IATA hopes industry-wide determination to reduce emissions will persuade policymakers not to single out air travel for harsh treatment.

Bisignani continued: "We also found consensus among the delegations that a global sectoral approach should be established for aviation emissions by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the UN's specialised agency for aviation. We will work closely with ICAO to prepare a global framework for managing aviation's emissions for the ICAO Assembly to consider in September 2010. And we will urge governments to ensure this framework is presented to COP16 in December 2010".

COP16 is the 16th annual Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the conference in Mexico that follows Copenhagen. He added: "In the meantime we continue to urge governments to avoid creating a patchwork of national and regional solutions and to ensure aviation's emissions are dealt with as a sector and across the world. A global sectoral approach supported by tough targets is the only sensible way forward for a global industry."


What the aviation industry fears is national or regional policy differences that distort competition, and which force airlines to pay several times in different ways for their contribution to global warming. For example, the application of compulsory emissions trading is not something the airlines object to provided it affects all airlines equally, but being required to pay again via taxation, they argue, is unacceptable, especially when the tax revenue is not ring-fenced for investment in projects associated with the prevention of global warming.

IATA provides two examples of what it believes are unreasonable "economic measures" used by governments, ostensibly associated with climate change. The Netherlands government introduced a departure tax on 1 July 2008. This tax required air passengers to pay up to €45 (£39) per ticket depending on class and distance travelled. The tax was expected to raise around €350 million a year. IATA says evidence showed that a significant number of passengers were seeking cheaper air travel alternatives in neighbouring Belgium and Germany. Possibly influenced by this concern about loss of business to neighbouring states, the tax was withdrawn on 30 June 2009, less than a year after its introduction, as part of the Dutch economic stimulus package.

The UK, whose population is less able to cross borders to take alternative air transport, doubled air passenger duty in 2007, increasing the total tax revenue to £2 billion ($3.14 billion) annually. IATA notes that, in July 2008, the UK government admitted that since the duty had been doubled, aviation would meet its climate change costs with £1 million to spare.

Despite this, the UK introduced a revised tax, aviation duty, in November 2009 that is expected to raise £3.1 billion in its first full year of operation. IATA believes that "none of the revenues" from air passenger duty or aviation duty go back into environmental measures or "fund new technology for aviation".

There is little IATA can do to influence governments over local taxes, but meanwhile the industry is accelerating its campaign to increase public awareness of its plan of action to reach carbon-neutral growth by 2020. This increased awareness might have been beginning to show at Copenhagen, unless the IATA team were kidding themselves.

It is still too early to judge whether Bisignani's surprise about "the level of support [at Copenhagen] for the industry's global sectoral approach and targets" will translate into what IATA would argue is a "more realistic" approach to aviation and climate change.

Source: Flight International