Airline Industry $24 Billion Emissions Pact Gets UN Approval

  • UN aviation organization appoves climate deal in Montreal
  • First global climate accord targeting a single industry

A United Nations accord to limit emissions from international air travel was formally adopted, the first global climate accord targeting a single industry.

After nine days of debate, delegates from 190 nations approved the measure Thursday in Montreal, requiring companies to offset emissions growth after 2020 by funding environmental initiatives. It is the first global climate accord adopted since the Paris Agreement, which will enter into force next month.

At least 60 nations representing more than 80 percent of aviation traffic have pledged to voluntarily participate in the system when it begins in 2020, including the U.S., China and most of Europe. The deal, which has drawn criticism from India and Russia, becomes mandatory for most nations in 2027.

“What we have been able to do today is a bold decision. It is really a historic moment,” said Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu of Nigeria, president of the UN aviation agency’s council.

Industry Support

The UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization estimates the agreement would cost airlines between $5.3 billion and $23.9 billion annually by 2035. Exhaust from international flights accounts for about 2 percent of global greenhouse gases and is forecast to triple by 2050. 

The air industry was largely omitted from the Paris accord because delegates were concerned that divvying up responsibility for global routes could derail the broader deal.

The 15-year agreement would not force airlines to cut their pollution. Instead, companies would compensate for any emissions growth after the accord begins in 2020 by buying credits to support renewable energy development, forest preservation or other environmental endeavors.

Airlines supported the accord. Despite the cost, companies said a single international standard would be cheaper and easier to follow than a patchwork of local programs. Paul Steele, senior vice president of the International Air Transport Association, trade association for the world’s airlines, called the passage “historic.”

“Aviation is an industry at the forefront of change,” Steele said.

Environmentalists pushed for the deal, calling it an important first step that can be improved over time. But they criticized the final proposal for relying on voluntary participation during the first six years. And they said they would have preferred an actual emission cap or cut over allowing carriers to offset emissions by buying credits.

“This agreement doesn’t do everything,” said Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund. “But it is the world’s first limit on the net CO2 emission of any entire global industry sector. And that’s very big.

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