Airline Emissions Plan Backed by 60 Nations, White House Says

  • International negotiators meet Tuesday to finalize agreement
  • UAE, Japan, South Korea will join voluntary phase of deal

At least 60 nations have agreed to join the voluntary phase of a United Nations program that would require international airlines to buy credits offsetting their pollution, including new commitments from major emitters like Japan, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates.

The White House believes the new commitments provide critical momentum for the proposed deal heading into a conference beginning Tuesday in Montreal, where supporters hope to forge the first global climate pact governing a single industry.

Brian Deese, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, said a diverse group of countries representing 80 percent of global air traffic had now signed on to be early participants in the agreement. The new commitments in the days leading up to the conference “bodes well for this smart, pragmatic approach moving forward next week,” he said in an e-mail.

The Obama administration is particularly heartened by the nations’ decision to participate in the voluntary phase of the program, believing it will make it easier for other nations to join.

Emerging Regions

The UAE, home to rapidly growing carriers Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways, is the third largest producer of international airline emissions. Japan Airlines Co. and ANA Holdings Inc. carried more than 16 million passengers on overseas routes last year. Thailand and Kenya have also signed on to participate in the early stages of the agreement, providing a practical and symbolic boost in Africa and Southeast Asia, developing regions that will be important to the success of the program.

Under the proposed 15-year deal, airlines would be penalized beginning in 2021 for emissions on international routes that exceed 2020 levels. But the agreement relies on voluntary participation during the first six years, drawing the ire of environmental groups and raising concerns that countries might kick their obligations down the road.

Some major emitters, including Brazil and India, have indicated they will not participate until the offsets become mandatory. Russia, whose flag carrier Aeroflot saw 19.7 million passengers in the first half of this year, has signaled resistance to emissions markets in the past and may cause tension as negotiators next week look to build consensus on the aviation deal.

Holdout Nations

Administration officials say securing a wave of new countries as early participants ahead of the Montreal conference should encourage holdout countries to get on board. The commitments this week come after China, home to the world’s fastest-growing aviation industry, agreed to sign on during the G-20 conference earlier this month in Hanghzou, China, following meetings with top U.S. officials.

The U.S. has leveraged Chinese participation to rally international climate agreements in the past, most famously last November’s Paris climate accord, where countries agreed to limit overall emissions and provide assistance to developing nations.

The proposed aviation deal would not force companies to lower their emissions -- rather, airlines would be required to buy credits supporting renewable energy development, forest preservation or other environmental efforts. That could prove expensive, with airline groups estimating the effort may cost them $23.9 billion annually by the end of the deal. That’s equivalent to 1.8 percent of the industry’s projected yearly revenue.

Airline Support

But supporters of the deal have an unlikely ally: the airline industry.

Carriers recognize that the sheer scope of plane emissions make them a ripe target for international regulators, and are eager for an international agreement instead of a patchwork of national regulations that could vary from country to country. Aviation is currently responsible for 2 percent of global emissions; if global aviation were a country, it would be the 7th highest carbon emitter in the world, according to the National Resources Defense Council.

“I am optimistic that we are on the brink of a historic agreement -- a first for an industry sector at the global level,” Alexandre de Juniac, chief executive officer of the International Air Transport Association, said in a statement. “Airlines support it and urge governments to agree when they meet” at the Montreal conference.

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