The Flying Clean Alliance has its say during the ICAO triennial assembly in Montreal in early October, Credit: Guy Lavigueur ©

Four years after airlines declared a 2020 target date to make their operations carbon neutral, there’s very little substance or science behind the industry’s plans to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

To hear the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) tell it, the market-based measures (MBMs) adopted at its triennial assembly in Montreal in early October break important new ground for an industry that accounts for 2% of the world’s carbon dioxide and 4.9% of historical global warming.

“This MBM agreement is a historic milestone for air transport and for the role of multilateralism in addressing global climate challenges,” said ICAO Council President Roberto Kobeh Gonzalez.

But the measures won’t be implemented before 2020. They won’t even be fleshed out in any detail until 2016. And a quick query to ICAO earlier this week revealed how little the United Nations agency knows about how MBMs will actually work.

By default, that pushes the industry’s credibility on climate change back to a fragmentary 2009 commitment by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the industry trade group that represents 240 air carriers and 84% of the world’s air traffic. That plan called for relatively modest emissions reductions through 2050, hinging on voluntary action by individual airlines and more than $1.5 trillion in industry investment.

Pushed to the Wall

International airlines have been negotiating greenhouse gas limits on air travel—observers say they’ve been deflecting the issue—since the last century.

“ICAO has been talking about dealing with carbon pollution from airplanes for 16 years, but doing nothing,” said Flying Clean Alliance Director Shelby White. The agency “can’t just keep playing its old game of promising climate action—next time—and then failing to deliver. Climate change is costing the aviation industry billions of dollars in cancelled flights from extreme weather, and hurting the whole planet.”

Yet ICAO resisted fuel efficiency standards for new aircraft at its 2001 triennial assembly. It rejected a global emissions trading system in 2004. And it stood by as the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions doubled between 1990 and 2010, according to Transport & Environment, a Brussels-based green transport advocacy group that published a guide to the 2013 ICAO meeting.

In the end, the catalyst for this month’s MBM agreement was the European Union’s decision to include aviation in its Emissions Trading System (ETS) as of 2012. When the EU moved to impose a cap and a price on emissions from international flights as of January 2012, a global GHG scheme suddenly looked a lot more attractive to ICAO.

But despite the fanfare, here’s the fine print:

  • No concrete action was taken at the Montreal assembly. Delegates merely authorized ICAO to develop a global MBM mechanism over the next three years. The details “will be determined over the course of the coming triennium, based on discussions amongst our member states,” an ICAO spokesperson wrote in an email interview.
  • Even if the next ICAO assembly adopts the plan in 2016, it won’t take effect until 2020.
  • Until then, the sector’s emissions will continue to rise, as increases in passenger volume offset incremental improvements in fuel efficiency.

Flying Against the Trend

The net result is that aviation could increasingly become an outlier in the effort to reduce sectoral GHG emissions—despite calculations from ICAO that show a negligible cost for international travellers if MBMs were introduced.

Aviation is “the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector and the most climate-intensive form of transport,” notes the Transport & Environment website. If industry trends continued while the rest of the world progressed toward a serious low-carbon target, airlines could account for 15% of the world’s remaining emissions by mid-century.

According to T&E’s ICAO guide, “a global ETS starting in 2012 would reduce aviation’s warming effect by about 31%,” compared to only 6% for the mix of new technology, operational improvements, and fuel switching favoured by the aviation industry. But ICAO’s decision this month postpones even that action to at least 2020—even though its spokesperson cited a pathetically low price for MBMs.

“A market-based measure designed to maintain carbon neutral growth from 2020 could cost in the order of $10 per seat for flights between 10,000 and 12,000 kilometres and $1.50 for flights between 900 and 1,900 kilometres,” he wrote.

Remixing an Old Tune

All of which brings us back to the 2009 IATA declaration, released in the months before the Copenhagen climate change conference that many saw as the last, best hope for reining in global GHG emissions.

“Today, we have taken a major step forward by committing to a global cap on our emissions in 2020,” IATA’s then-CEO Giovanni Bisignani told industry leaders at the World Air Transport Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “After this date, aviation’s emissions will not grow even as demand increases. Airlines are the first global industry to make such a bold commitment.”

At the time, an official acknowledged that IATA’s version of carbon neutrality would allow emissions to rise for another 11 years. Starting from a projected baseline of 623 million tons of emissions in 2009, Assistant Director Quentin Browell said IATA projected a 1.5% annual improvement in fuel efficiency, more than outweighed by a 5% annual increase in air travel.

The compound annual increase of 3.5% meant aviation had defined “carbon neutrality” as an output of almost 910 million tons per year in 2020, more than a 50% increase in just over a decade.

From 2020 to 2050, IATA called for a 50% reduction in emissions. That would suggest a target of 455 million tons, a reduction of only 27% from 2009, and an actual increase in emissions from 1990, the baseline year for most serious GHG reduction scenarios.

And that assumed the industry had the ability and the will to meet the target. IATA made no commitments for individual airlines, but projected investments of $1.5 trillion in new aircraft by 2020, more than $100 billion in carbon offsets by 2025, and another $100 billion in biofuels by 2020—if an aviation biofuel is even a viable option by then.

Fast forward four years, and the ICAO spokesperson said it was premature to calculate the investment that would be needed to meet the MBM target, or to speculate on where the funds would come from.

“Given the number of undeterminable factors which play a part in achieving the 50% target, an effective assessment at this point in time is difficult and vulnerable,” he wrote. “The level of investment in MBMs depends on the goals and targets adopted by the sector, as well as the progress of technology and operational improvements for measures such as air traffic management.”

‘Beam Me Up, Scotty’

Here’s the underlying problem for ICAO and IATA: without an unimaginable shift in basic science, incremental GHG reductions may be the best the airlines can achieve without fundamentally changing their business model.

“Measures to address aviation’s climate change impact by dampening growth or restricting market forces in any way have been definitively taken off the table,” Transportation & Environment noted in its ICAO meeting guide. But lightweighting and operational changes can only achieve so much, said industry analyst Ian Lee, former MBA advisor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business in Ottawa.

“The physics involved in lifting thousands of pounds up in the sky is even more daunting than the physics of making a metal object sitting on the ground go forward,” so the breakthrough required to make airlines carbon neutral “would defy our contemporary understanding of physics and engineering,” Lee said. “You end up with ‘Beam Me Up, Scotty,’ and we don’t know how to do that.”

Which means the airlines are caught between two scientific absolutes: the imperative to drastically reduce GHG emissions by mid-century, and the limits on their own ability to do so. Add a perceived business interest in sidestepping the EU regulation, and all they have left is…spin.

That goes a long way to explaining the sequence of events behind the ICAO resolution. But it doesn’t begin to imagine what air travel would look like in a low-carbon energy future, or what mix of technologies and services might rise up to replace it.