The UN accord reached on Thursday to clean up pollution from international aviation might cost airlines as much as US$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 would run into the billions, the price per flight would be low enough that it might not impact airfares.
“This agreement is a timid step in the right direction when we need to be sprinting,” Greenpeace UK chief scientist Doug Parr said. “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.
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 US, China and Europe. That is 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 might 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 US$1.5 billion to US$6.2 billion on credits backing such projects annually. By 2035, they would spend US$5.3 billion to US$23.9 billion.
“It could mean a significant source of low-carbon development financing,” the fund’s international counsel Annie Petsonk said.
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 US, adding language that might make carbon credits from Brazilian companies eligible for sale as offsets to airlines. In the end, Brazil supported the accord.
Russia and India also opposed the deal. Unlike Brazil, they did not find common ground with nations on the other side of the table.
Lastly, the EU claimed victory in the accord. It 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.
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