Transport Ministers from 21 major countries met in Tokyo last week to discuss the establishment of a global trading scheme for emissions from aviation. The ministers expressed their support for the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) efforts to take action on the growing contribution of the airline industry to the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

A global agreement on airline emissions would be an attractive prospect: it fits much more comfortably with the intercontinental, international nature of air travel. National or regional approaches are open to accusations of unfairness and even illegality from the airline industry. They are also more complex to implement because they have to find a way of dealing consistently with flights that depart from or arrive in countries not covered by the scheme.

Despite the limitations of regional initiatives, the EU has moved to bring airlines into its emissions trading scheme from 2012 onwards. The legislation – a new Directive amending the Directive that originally created the EU ETS – was approved last year.


Emissions from the EU in 2006 by sector. Click to open larger version in a new window. Source: Climatico.

The chart on the right shows the EU’s CO2 emissions by sector. Emissions from aviation are shown by the red segment on the bar showing CO2 emissions from transport1. At first glance, it seems that emissions from airplanes are negligible, and indeed the airline industry contributes only around 3% of all European greenhouse gas emissions today. This is much less than emissions from road transport, and a small fraction of the emissions from the energy, manufacturing and construction sectors currently included in the EU ETS.

While the size of emissions from airplanes is currently fairly small, it has attracted attention because it is growing so quickly. During the period 2006-2020, emissions from air travel are forecast to more than double . The EU will be trying to reduce its emissions by 20% or possibly even 30% during the same period, so a 3% contribution today might translate into a figure closer to 8% by 2020.

As well as seeking to curb its own contribution to climate change, the EU may also be hoping to lead the way for the rest of the world by bringing aviation into a cap-and-trade system. The ICAO’s discussions are in relatively early stages, and it is unclear if and when it will reach an agreement over global emissions from the industry. Following the ICAO’s meeting last week, it was reported that the President of the ICAO’s Council believes that the EU’s approach might form a starting point for a worldwide emissions trading scheme for airplanes.

1 Planes contribute other greenhouse gases besides CO2, so strictily speaking looking at CO­2­ alone gives only a rough indication of the scale of GHG emissions from aviation.

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