Photographer: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Bloomberg

Climate Deal Seen as a Win for Airlines, Less So for Earth

  • UN accord for flight emissions will take effect in 2020
  • Enviromentalists say deal lets airlines off too easy

The United Nations accord reached Thursday to clean up pollution from international aviation may cost airlines as much as $23.9 billion annually by 2035. The companies see it as a victory.

The landmark deal brokered in Montreal creates a global system requiring airlines to compensate for emissions growth after 2020 by funding environmental initiatives. That spares carriers from exactly what they had pushed to avoid: a patchwork of regional environmental regulations that probably would have been even more costly.

The accord is less of a win for the planet, at least in the eyes of environmentalists. The deal is voluntary for countries during the first six years. It covers only international flights, not domestic. Rather than forcing emission cuts, it allows airlines to increase pollution in exchange for buying credits that support renewable energy development, forest preservation and other environmental efforts. And while costs will run into the billions, the price per flight will be low enough that it may not impact airfares.

“This agreement is a timid step in the right direction when we need to be sprinting,” said Greenpeace UK Chief Scientist Doug Parr. “The aviation industry has managed to get away for years with doing nothing about its growing carbon-emission problem, and now it’s giving itself even more years to do very little.’’

Exhaust from international flights accounts for about 2 percent of global greenhouse gases and is expected to triple by 2050. Airlines were left out of the Paris climate accord because of the challenge of divvying up responsibility for global routes. The deal reached in Montreal is the first international framework to regulate emissions from a single industry.

Not all environmentalists are bemoaning the accord. At least 65 nations have agreed to join during the voluntary phases, including the U.S., China and Europe. That’s enough to cover about 83 percent of international air traffic responsible for 65 percent of the industry’s emissions. The Environmental Defense Fund estimates the accord’s impact will be the equivalent of removing about 35 million cars from roads each year.

Other winners in the deal include the clean energy industry and companies that develop projects to reduce greenhouse gases flowing into the atmosphere. Requiring airlines to buy carbon offsets to compensate for their increased emissions may open up billions in financing for solar farms, reforestation projects and programs to cut industrial gases. The UN’s aviation agency estimates that by 2025, airlines will spend $1.5 billion to $6.2 billion on credits backing such projects annually. By 2035, they will spend $5.3 billion to $23.9 billion.

“It could mean a significant source of low-carbon development financing,’’ said Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund.

The agreement, brokered by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization, capped more than six years of negotiations. As with any global deal, there were compromises. Brazil, for example, criticized the proposal for months, saying it would unfairly penalize developing nations for increasing their air traffic. Hours before the deadline, Brazil struck a deal with the U.S., adding language that may make carbon credits from Brazilian companies eligible for sale as offsets to airlines. In the end, Brazil supported the accord.

Opposition

Russia and India also opposed the deal. Unlike Brazil, they did not find common ground with nations on the other side of the table. Both countries appear to have walked away largely empty handed.

Lastly, the European Union claimed victory in the accord. The EU pushed emissions to the top of the aviation agenda in 2012, after saying it would require airlines to buy carbon permits for all flights in and out of the region. That triggered an outcry from China, Egypt, Brazil and other nations that argued the measure was beyond the EU’s authority. Europe agreed to suspend the program and allow the international community to negotiate an international deal. Then Europe pushed hard to make it happen.

“European solidarity, perseverance and its ambitious climate agenda have delivered,’’ EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc said Friday. “Not just for Europe but for the entire world.’’

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