The PSI Blog

Aviation: time to reduce sky-high emissions
Tom Watson

Aviation accounts for 2% of human greenhouse gas emissions. If the aviation industry were a country, it would be among the top 10 highest emitters. Moreover, the environmental impact from aviation emissions could be anything from two to four times higher, given the uncertainties around burning jet fuel and releasing water vapour at high altitude. If current growth continues, the industry’s emissions could rise by 300% by 2050, in doing so absorbing 27% of the global carbon budget under the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degrees Celsius target.

The notoriously opaque International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) has had almost 20 years to put forward a proposal on how it can tackle the industry’s skyrocketing emissions growth, and has until now achieved almost nothing. In the light of the Paris Agreement – from which it was generously excluded, further to years of special treatment and tax exemptions – ICAO now finds itself under intense pressure to put forward a plausible emissions programme that reflects global ambitions.

Last week, by the conclusion of ICAO’s 39th Assembly in Montreal, the organisation at least agreed on something – the ‘global market-based measure’, an offsetting mechanism. This means, however, that while the sector’s emissions continue to skyrocket, it can claim to be making its fair contribution to the fight on climate change. Until it reduces its greenhouse gas emissions in absolute terms, it isn’t.

Real work must now take place to ensure that whatever carbon offsetting scheme ICAO adopts adheres to the strictest environmental and social standards in order to avoid the kinds of unintended consequences offsetting has led to in the past. ICAO must also open up to outside scrutiny in order to ensure that government representatives are arguing for the real interests of the citizens to whom they are accountable and not for the continued protection of vested interests. Finally, ICAO and its members must begin an ambitious and collaborative programme of investment in order to place the industry in line with the rest of the world as we begin the work of putting the Paris Agreement into effect.

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