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Time to set aviation on a flightpath to tackle climate change

 

Today marks 100 days since French Foreign Minister and COP President Laurent Fabius banged the gavel on the Paris Agreement on climate change, to jubilant cheers from world leaders and observers across the globe. This was the moment that developed and developing countries alike agreed to keep global warming “well below” 2°C, and to “pursue efforts” to limit the increase to 1.5°C.

The 1.5°C goal keeps climate stability within reach. It reduces risks to those countries threatened by sea-level rise and increased severe weather that will accompany even 2°C of warming. Achieving the 1.5°C goal will require greater efforts to reduce emissions across the entire global economy.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (second left); Christiana Figueres (left), Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); Laurent Fabius (second right), Minister for Foreign Affairs of France and President of the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP21) and François Hollande (right), President of France celebrate after the historic adoption of Paris Agreement on climate change.Closing ceremony of COP21, Paris © United Nations Photo on flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

One major industry that has been largely left out of global efforts to tackle climate change is international aviation. We have a chance to change that this autumn, when the UN aviation agency ICAO will seek global agreement on a market-based measure (MBM) to make international airlines start paying for their CO2 emissions.

Carbon emissions from this sector are already bigger than those of the UK, and growing fast. If left unchecked, international aviation could eat up over a fifth of the world’s entire carbon budget by 2050. It’s not just carbon that’s the problem either – emissions of sulphur and nitrogen oxides at altitude cause clouds to form that further increase the global warming impact of flying.

International aviation emissions growth out to 2050 © WWF-UK / Made NoiseInternational aviation emissions growth out to 2050 © WWF-UK / Made Noise

So far, efforts within ICAO to develop climate solutions have been conducted in near-total secrecy. Civil society groups have long been pushing for greater transparency in ICAO, so it’s good to see that ICAO has finally published its draft Assembly Resolution text. Hopefully this means that all countries and stakeholders can now have an open and well-informed discussion about the proposals.

The key issue for the ICAO Assembly in Montreal this autumn is how to share out emissions targets between countries, recognising that developed countries (and their airlines) should take the lead in reducing emissions. ICAO needs to make sure that developing countries, especially those not directly engaged in the MBM process, have the information they need to figure out if the deal is fair for them or not.

ICAO needs to find a fair way to share out emissions targets between countries. Photo from Daniel Piraino on flickr <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/" target="_blank">CC BY-NC-ND 2.0</a>.Aeroplanes in Las Vegas © Daniel Piraino on flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

There are many other issues at stake too. Above all, the ICAO Assembly Agreement needs to make two things clear.

Firstly, that offsetting CO2 emissions above 2020 levels is only a first step for the aviation sector. Stronger targets and in-sector reductions will also be needed to put aviation on a truly sustainable flightpath. The current text only includes downward-facing language around price controls and winding-up the MBM if the sector over-achieves – what it needs is upward-facing language charting a course towards a fair share from aviation towards the 1.5°C goal.

Secondly, ICAO must send a clear signal that airlines will only be allowed to claim emissions reductions from carbon credits and biofuels if they achieve real emissions reductions, while promoting sustainable development. Dodgy offsets and bad biofuels must not be allowed in. On this point the current text is ambiguous.

UK climate change secretary Amber Rudd in a meeting with Laurent Fabius and Gambia's minister of environment and climate change Pa Ousman at COP21 last December. Photo from francediplomatie on flickr <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/" target="_blank">CC BY-NC-SA 2.0</a>.Amber Rudd at COP21, Paris © francediplomatie on flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The UK played a key role in brokering the Paris Agreement, and has already moved to set a long-term zero-carbon goal. We’re calling on climate and transport ministers to work together to keep the momentum going from Paris, through to Montreal.

The UK can help provide the strong political leadership that ICAO needs in order to seize this unique opportunity and put the international aviation sector on a flightpath to a truly sustainable future.

Please visit the Flightpath 1.5 website to find out more about reducing emissions from aviation.

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