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ICAO: This is climate traffic control; you are clear for takeoff. Over.

  • Date: 21 March 2016
  • Author: Brad Schallert, Senior Program Officer for International Climate Change Policy
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Exactly 100 days ago, the United Nation’s convened leaders from 196 nations to sign the Paris Agreement – a global plan to pare back the carbon emissions driving climate change. It was an historic moment and one that puts us on an emissions reduction path closer to where we need to be to fend off the most dangerous impacts of climate change.

But much more work lies ahead. While ambitious in many respects, December’s Paris Agreement did not address the fastest growing source of global emissions – carbon pollution from international aviation. And we need to start reducing those emissions now.

Up to this point, efforts to curb airline pollution are being held at the gate. With the Paris Agreement behind us, we’re now waiting for the pilot to throttle up the engines to address this growing source of emissions. That pilot is the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the UN body that regulates international aviation. And our intended destination is a low-emissions future that allows us to stay under the temperature that the scientific community agrees is safe—1.5C.

For more than 18 years, delegates to ICAO have disagreed about how and who should be responsible for reducing pollution from international flights. And all that time burning fuel at the gate has only delayed us in getting to our safe climate destination.

Aviation emissions represent nearly 5% of global warming today; and they are expected to triple by 2050. With demand for airline travel increasing from 2.4 billion passengers in 2010 to an astounding 7.3 billion passengers by 2034, the sooner the reductions are realized the better. The longer ICAO delays, the greater likelihood that climate impacts will overwhelm us. In “climate speak,” ICAO has a lot to do to close aviation’s emissions gap.

It’s a big task, but an achievable one. ICAO has taken some necessary first steps to address the aviation emissions gap to date, most recently with a CO2 standard for aircraft, which is largely regarded by the environmental community as a standard that would likely have been achieved without this policy. But as this graph reminds us, the majority of needed reductions have yet to be addressed. Urgently.

That’s why today, several leading environmental organizations including WWF are launching a campaign urging ICAO to deliver a strong emissions agreement when it meets later this year. FlightPath 1.5 wants to focus on the positive momentum generated by the Paris Agreement and carry that spirit of international cooperation forward to ensure that the aviation sector is contributing its fair share to the goal of limiting global temperature increase to 1.5C.

Over the next 200 days, we will be pressing world leaders to confront the aviation emissions climate gap and educating the public about the importance of this neglected issue. Just last week, ICAO released its first public draft of a global market-based measure to drive this process forward. But while it is an important step, the text does not currently align with the environmental goals of the Paris Agreement. Governments and the aviation industry needs to come together over the next 6 months to improve it.

The FlightPath 1.5 campaign calls on ICAO to cap and cut emissions of the entire international aviation sector and deliver an aggressive and transparent ICAO deal that:

  1. Initially caps net carbon emissions of international aviation at 2020 levels;
  2. Encourages airlines to meet the cap by cutting their own emissions and lets them use market-based measures as well - but only if those measures deliver high-quality emission reductions and low-carbon biofuels that promote sustainable development; and,
  3. Reviews the cap regularly, so that over time aviation’s climate pollution can be ratcheted-down in line with the Paris target.

We’re proud to be working Aviation Environment Federation, Carbon Market Watch, Environmental Defense Fund, The International Council on Clean Transportation, and Transport & Environment on this effort and urge others to lend their voice as well.

Throughout 2015, the climate movement came together and pushed for a strong outcome in Paris. And today, future generations will be better off because of it. This year, the aviation sector’s turn. ICAO’s October meeting is a grand opportunity to deliver real emissions reductions and move us closer to lower emissions levels we need to protect local communities – and our planet –from the most dangerous impacts of climate change.

ICAO: This is climate traffic control; you are clear for takeoff. Over.

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