Climate Consensus: Failure by Incompetence or Design? – Part One

The logo for the United Nations, which is comprised of 193 member states

The image of world leaders gathering at the latest conference or assembly is synonymous throughout the Geo-Political arena. All of these events usually transpire in the same manner.

Leaders and delegates ‘talk’ for x mount of days, tidbits of information leak out to the media, ‘talks’ remain ongoing, then rumours surface of disagreement in the ranks, concessions are made, negotiations push on into the early hours – usually right up to the deadline for maximum impact – and then the grand climax… A ‘consensus’. A ‘deal’. Then x amount of months later the same leaders reconvene for more ‘talks’ on the same issue. It’s an identical cycle whichever strand of political discourse you encounter.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is one of these cycles. The ICAO was formed in 1947 and is part of the United Nations (UN). It is an organisation set up with the intention of establishing international standards for the civil aviation industry. One of its main objectives – supposedly – is to work with member states on devising policies for controlling and reducing the level of aircraft emissions globally.

Every three years the ICAO meet for one of their triennial assembly’s in Montreal, Canada. The next meeting begins this year on the 27th of September and runs to the 7th of October. Almost two weeks worth of deliberations designed to build towards some sort of ‘consensus’.

The problem here is that a large majority of environmental, transport and political factions have been saying the same thing since the Kyoto protocol was adopted in 1997. Namely that the organisation is not fit to negotiate with member states. Since 1997, the ICAO has held six triennial assembly’s. Not once has a consensus been formed that in any way combats the rise of carbon dioxide emissions produced by aircrafts.

So what has led us up to this point? Why have the ICAO not been making the progress that is expected of them?

The Paris Climate Agreement 

In December last year, representatives from 195 countries reached a ‘consensus’ on climate change. They pledged to keep average global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, but preferably reduce it even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Much fanfare was had throughout mainstream media amidst scenes of self-congratulation amongst the body of delegates responsible for the deal.

Naturally, the process of Geoengineering was not featured in the agreement. The denial of that activity remains inculcated. It may or may not surprise you to know that aviation was also not part of the deal. Nowhere in the Paris agreement are aircraft emissions even mentioned. Early drafts of the agreement had featured aviation and a commitment from countries to limit or reduce emissions. The final text, however, omitted the aviation industry entirely.

The Daily Telegraph reported that the ‘reference was dropped under pressure from emerging economies‘. Whilst The New Scientist said that the aviation industry claim ‘they deserve special treatment because they are essential to economic development.’

Immediately following Paris, the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) – which represents all of the aviation sector and has around 50 members – released a statement regarding the deal. Here are some snippets from it:

We were surprised by the lack of mention of ICAO’s responsibility to address aviation emissions in the final Paris Agreement, despite appearing in previous drafts. Nonetheless, ICAO already has its own mandate and well-established programme for further addressing aviation and climate change, without the need for direction from COP21 (Paris deal) or the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change)

They then went on to say that:

Whilst we were surprised by the lack of reference to international transport emissions in the final agreement, it is understandable that in the course of multilateral negotiations, some items have higher priority than others.

As international aviation is already being addressed at ICAO under the Chicago Convention, it was deemed by a number of negotiators to be not necessary to address these sectors in this particular agreement.

We suspect that the differing views on this issue meant a compromise was too difficult to reach in the short time available for discussions, and so the matter was dropped.

We believe there was an understanding that the ICAO process was anyway well underway irrespective of any Paris discussions and that Parties felt comfortable with that progress.

What is clear from ATAG’s statement is that they are fully in accordance with the ICAO. What is also clear is ATAG’s unreserved confidence in the organisation, which for nearly twenty years has failed to facilitate a deal with it’s 191 member states.

As we will learn, no precedent exists for the ICAO to curb aircraft emissions. An article published on in 2014 stated that the ICAO ‘has yet to adopt a single enforceable measure to reduce COfrom aircraft in the 17 years since it was charged with developing a climate policy for international aviation as part of the Kyoto Protocol discussions.’ 

So why are ATAG satisfied with allowing the ICAO to continue with their work in light of perpetual failure?

To give you some idea of the ICAO’s failure, let’s examine some of the reaction to their past three triennial assembly’s:

ICAO Triennial Assembly – 2007

Nine years ago, the European Union was planning to introduce an aviation emissions trading scheme, which would be part of the EU-ETS (more on this later). The ICAO at the time recommended countries not adopt the system to foreign airlines without mutual agreement between states. No international agreement was reached at the meeting. reported the following in 2007 after the assembly:

EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas said:

“In order to fight climate change, all sectors must contribute in a fair way, including aviation, whose emissions are increasing very rapidly. It is a great pity that ICAO has not been able to reach an agreement on the way forward.”

Beatrice Olivastri, chief executive officer of Friends of the Earth Canada, said:

“We can no longer tolerate ICAO’s position that aviation is a sacred cow allowing it to ignore climate impacts. If [the airlines’] own governances agency fails to lead in this respect, it’s time to find other mandatory means.” 

João Vieira, of the Brussels-based group Transport and Environment, said:

“After a shameful decade of obstruction and inaction, ICAO must now be stripped of its environmental responsibilities.”

The president of the ICAO assembly at the time, Jeffrey Shane, had this to say:

“The assembly recognised the tremendous work of ICAO over the past few years in mitigating the impact of aviation on the environment.

By agreeing to an aggressive programme of action, ICAO has begun a vital new chapter in its long and distinguished history.”

This is akin to the self-delusion that followed the Paris Climate Agreement. Incidentally, Jeffrey Shane is now General Counsel for The International Air Transport Association.

ICAO Triennial Assembly – 2010

As the 2010 meeting commenced, the president and the secretary general had communicated the need to examine more ambitious goals’, develop a framework for market-based measures’, and ‘look at ways to provide assistance to developing countries.’

The non-committal language was an early warning sign of what was to follow.

This report from details some of what came out of the assembly:

The Assembly closed having failed to deliver on all three counts, with many items relating to market-based measures (MBMs) deferred until the 38th Assembly in 2013 pending further studies.

In pursuit of more ambitious goals, the meetings could do no more than agree to strive towards the achievement of no net increase in international aviation emissions from 2020 (a goal put forward by industry) in a text that is littered with reservations from key countries.

The Aviation Environment Federation’s report gave more information on the inclusion of Europe’s Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS):

The scheme’s effectiveness will be weaker as a result of European concessions at talks which also ended any hope of credible global measures to cut aviation’s climate impact in the foreseeable future according to Transport & Environment (T&E) and the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF).

The EU entered negotiations at the ICAO Assembly calling for a global cut in aviation emissions of 10% by 2020, based on 2005 emissions levels, as agreed by all EU member states in the run-up to the Copenhagen climate conference.

But EU ambition was cut short by an American-led initiative to maintain the wording of a 2007 ICAO resolution that called for ‘mutual agreement’ whereby every single state affected by policies such as the EU-ETS would have to agree to be included; effectively killing such schemes.

They concluded with:

The triennial Assembly failed once again to produce a single measure to actually reduce global emissions from the aviation sector.

The final resolution also states that climate commitments for aviation are ‘aspirational’ i.e. non binding, with no obligations on individual countries, let alone penalties for failure.

Bill Hemmings of Transport & Environment had this to say after the ICAO’s latest failure:

“The Assembly represented a descent into farce as many countries distanced themselves from various aspects of the resolution.  ICAO’s irrelevance grows along with emissions from the world’s most energy and carbon intensive form of transport.

As a forum for agreeing, let alone implementing, global environmental targets for aviation emissions, ICAO is clearly not fit for purpose, its 13 year record of failure shows that.”

Despite this assessment, the ICAO persists as the forum for combating global aviation emissions.

ICAO Triennial Assembly – 2013

Before the 2013 assembly took place, transport policy manager of WWF-UK, Jean Leston, said,“If there was a competition for foot dragging, ICAO would have won it long ago. The world has waited 16 long years for ICAO to decide how it is going to reduce aviation emissions. If today’s disappointing Council meeting is anything to go by, we’ll be waiting forever. It’s now down to Assembly members to make sure that ICAO delivers on its promise to seal the deal at the forthcoming 38th Assembly.”

At this stage, it is important to note that part of Europe’s Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS) had been suspended prior to the assembly to allow negotiations to continue for a global agreement. But the consequence of failure this time round was made clear: if the assembly did not agree on a global measure, this would trigger the automatic reinstatement of the full provisions of the EU-ETS from January 2014.

Before we look at the results of the assembly, here is a brief explanation of what the EU-ETS is, courtesy of the ICTSD (International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development):

Under the original EU scheme, airlines landing in or taking off from any of the EU’s 28 member states – as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway – were required to surrender carbon permits for the emissions they produce. The aviation component of the ETS took effect on 1 January 2012, and required airlines to buy permits for 15 percent of those carbon emissions, with the remaining 85 percent initially being provided to them for free.

Brussels then announced last November plans to “stop the clock” for one year on enforcing the inclusion of aviation into its Emissions Trading System (ETS) for flights to and from non-European countries, in the hopes of buying time for ICAO to put together a global deal.

On the surface, this appears as the EU making concessions in order to broker a deal. The pressure on them to do so dates back to 2012, when twenty three countries (including the USA, China and Russia) declared opposition to including global airlines within the EU ETS structure. They opposed it because the scheme applied to emissions from all flights into and from Europe, and it also included emissions outside EU airspace. Going one step further, the governments of the USA, China and India instructed their national airlines not to comply with the EU ETS.

Did this do enough to negotiate a successful deal? In short, no.

The BBC reported after the assembly that:

The world’s governments agreed that all airlines should join a global scheme to cut carbon emissions.

There is still pressure on the EU to delay imposing its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) on aviation. The EU said its leadership had led to the deal. Environmentalists accused the EU of caving in to pressure.”

The aviation sector will attempt to negotiate by 2016 a market-based mechanism (taxes, tradeable permits or carbon offsets) to tackle emissions from flying.

Further on in the BBC’s report are two key points. Firstly, that during the assembly there was strong resistance to curbing emissions from China, Brazil and India – countries that are all part of B.R.I.C.S which is an association of emerging economies. The other country part of B.R.I.C.S is Russia.

The second critical aspect was that during the meeting, the ICAO and member states voted to prohibit any nation from imposing its own emissions curbing scheme without global agreement. Europe’s reaction to that was to express doubt that the vote was binding.

Further reaction to the assembly comes from Lexology:

An amendment to the latest draft resolution on aviation emissions was tabled by a number of states led by China, India and Russia. It required that there should exist mutual agreement among relevant states before foreign aircraft operators could be included in the EU ETS or any other similar scheme. This amendment not only rejected the EU compromise but appeared to infringe on the EU’s right to regulate its own airspace.

The ICAO countries voted 97 to 39 to include this provision against the EU ETS.

Shortly after the conclusion of the ICAO assembly, the EU Commission responded by setting out an amendment to the current EU ETS. They changed it so that emissions would only be covered for the part of a flight which takes place in European airspace.

In 2014, the European parliament agreed a compromise deal to extend the freeze on the aviation aspect to the EU ETS through to 2016. The year of the next triennial assembly. The EU have affirmed that if the ICAO cannot agree new and satisfactory measures, they will ‘restart the clock’  to include intercontinental flights (both originating and arriving in Europe) in the EU ETS system.

In other words, we remain virtually where we were back in 2010. No consensus. No agreement. And the continual presence of deferring matters to the next triennial assembly.


In part two of this article, we will explore the run up to the ICAO 39th Triennial Assembly which begins in Montreal, Canada, on Tuesday September 27th 2016.

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