COP21: Aviation and shipping a climate law unto themselves

No tax is paid worldwide on aircraft or ship fuel despite those sectors’ huge emissions


International aviation and shipping have rightly been dubbed “the elephants in the room” at COP21, and there is now a real danger they will escape yet again from any requirement to cut their prodigious – and growing – carbon emissions, just as they’ve done for the past 20 years.

Galway-born Andrew Murphy, aviation specialist with the Brussels-based Transport & Environment lobby group, said the UN’s objective of limiting global warming to between 1.5 and 2 degrees would be “impossible unless we reduce emissions from these sectors”.

Aviation is responsible for 3 per cent of global carbon emissions, while shipping accounts for almost 3 per cent. Combined, they have an impact equal to Britain and Germany and are continuing to grow rapidly – up to 270 per cent by 2050.

Despite these trends, not a cent in tax is paid worldwide on aviation fuel for commercial aircraft or fuel oil for container ships, passenger ferries or cruise liners. They are classified as “international bunker fuels” that cannot be attributed to any particular country and thus escape the tax net.

Transport & Environment has called on COP21 delegates to include a “clear requirement” in Paris for the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to set realistic emissions reduction targets consistent with 1.5 to 2 degree objective and adopt measures to achieve them.

Although the 1997 Kyoto Protocol mandated the ICAO and IMO to limit or reduce emissions from international aviation and shipping, neither body has yet done so.

“In the 18 years since Kyoto, ICAO has failed to implement one single measure to limit international aviation emissions,” Murphy said.

Industry influence

While the ICAO and IMO talked, emissions from aviation and shipping increased 80 per cent between 1990 and 2010, compared to a 40 per cent increase for the rest of the global economy. “If this trend continues, it will undermine the efforts of countries and other economic sectors.

“ICAO and IMO climate policies need a reset. While these organisations remain, for now, the appropriate venues to introduce measures, their complete lack of ambition, stemming largely from the overweening influence of industry in both bodies, must be addressed,” according to Murphy.

Both bodies were set up by the United Nations itself and nominally operate under its auspices. But they need to be required, under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to adopt ambitious emissions reduction targets consistent with meeting the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees.

Strong political message

“The Paris agreement must send a strong political message to ICAO/IMO for them to start taking serious measures that would drastically increase their level of ambition,” Murphy said.

Referring to shipping, he pointed out that “the world’s diminishing carbon budget means that a delay in reducing shipping emissions will require steeper emission reductions from this sector in later years, presenting a far bigger challenge to the industry which may then, in fact, impact world trade.”

According to research by EurActiv, one of the leading online media covering the EU, international aviation alone – largely the preserve of wealthier people – enjoys fossil fuel subsidies amounting to €60 billion annually. Yet the impact of climate change will disproportionately affect the world’s poorest.

In a paper published last month, renowned economists Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel, of the Paris School of Economics, suggested a levy of €20 per passenger for an economy air ticket and €180 per passenger travelling in business class, with the proceeds going to climate aid for poorer countries.

“We know that very few of the world’s poor take flights”, said James Nix, director of the Brussels-based Green Budget Europe and formerly of An Taisce.

“Levying all flights will create a sustainable long-term fund for climate finance, providing an investment source which does not rely on ad-hoc year-to-year pledges”.

To head off such a grim scenario, the International Air Transport Association, which represents the airlines, has set itself the goals of achieving “carbon-neutral growth” from 2020 and halving emissions by 2050, compared to their 2005 levels – largely by switching from fossil-based aviation fuel to biofuels.

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