The aviation deal is a step in the right direction, but needs an explicit link to the Paris Agreement goals and a credible offsetting system to really set the industry on a climate-friendly flight path 

What a week. Hot on the heels of the momentous ratification of the Paris Agreement – confirming that the landmark deal will enter into force next month – environmental campaigners and journalists once again rolled out the superlatives to applaud the agreement of the first deal to limit emissions from the international aviation sector.

“Historic”, “unprecedented” and “visionary” were all words used by commentators to describe the deal, which seeks to limit emissions from international passenger and cargo flights at 2020 levels, via a carbon offsetting scheme. Participation will be voluntary at first, and from 2027 most countries are mandated to join.

While the media may be getting superlative fatigue following this week’s mini-flurry of “historic” deals, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) agreement really is worthy of the fuss. After years of political wrangling, it represents a major diplomatic breakthrough on the topic of international aviation emissions – which have historically been left out of UN climate deals and not regulated under domestic climate law. It is also the first agreement of its kind to cover a single sector of a global industry.

And while not perfect, there is much in the deal to be celebrated.

From 2021 around 75% of emissions from the global aviation sector will be offset, with dozens of countries – including China, the US and Japan – voluntarily taking part in the first phases of the scheme, more than ICAO had assumed would when the idea of a voluntary phase was first floated.

This means that over the 15 years of the programme (from 2021-2035) airlines could offset almost 2.5bn tonnes of carbon dioxide – equivalent to taking 35 million cars of the road each year –according to the Environmental Defense Fund. It seems the ‘peer pressure’ effect that was so important to the early signing and ratification of the Paris Agreement is once again having the desired effect in spurring countries on to commit to higher climate action.

Airlines will now also have a major – read, financial – incentive to make their routes, and their aircraft, more fuel efficient, boosted by new carbon dioxide standards for new aircraft agreed earlier this year by ICAO. By 2021 Virgin Atlantic has promised to have a purely twin engine aircraft fleet – planes which are on average 30% more fuel efficient than traditional aircraft. Other airlines will follow suit.

And although the cost of the scheme is expected to add very little to the cost of the airfare on customers – a maximum of 2% on ticket prices, according to ICAO – as the scheme becomes mandatory it could become a vital source of cash for climate projects around the world. By 2035 ICAO figures suggest it could have funded up to $24bn worth of offsetting projects around the world, from reforestation to alternative energy projects.

And the fact the deal is a single, unitary agreement backed by 191 countries means aviation avoids what many were viewing as the inevitable alternative if a compromise wasn’t reached – a messy patchwork of national and regional policies that could lead to overlapping costs and confusing bureaucracy for many international airlines.

It was a risk ICAO was well aware of going into the meeting: “In recent years, there has been a marked increase in the number of carbon pricing instruments, such as CO2 taxes or emissions trading schemes, applied around the world,” read one briefing note. “A similar proliferation of carbon pricing instruments on aviation would result in an unsustainable patchwork of measures for operators and for governments. Indeed, there are strong indications that a number of States around the world have considered the adoption of economic measures in this area and the International Monetary Fund has specifically called for a tax on CO2 on aviation and shipping.”


UK secures historic deal to combat global aviation emissions