Sustaining Aviation Series, Post 1: ICAO

The body that accounts for and supports international commercial aviation is the International Civil Aviation Organization. ICAO [Eye-KAY-o] is a United Nations agency. I start this series on aviation and sustainability with ICAO because, in 2015, ICAO is where attention is focused most strongly and controversially.

In many respects, doing ICAO work is pretty thankless and unrewarding. The expectation of the industry that it oversees is that the agency will offer support. The expectation of some interest groups is that it will control aviation and restrain some of the industry’s undesirable side effects. The expectation of particular governments is that it will offer a way for them to organize consensus around, and compliance with, policies that support their needs and wants. Unhappy is the ICAO functionary who imagines a day at work that involves great forward strides and wholesale change in the way aviation is conducted: no matter what happens, some (or often all) airlines, NGOs, and governments will squawk.

 Consider, in that context, the global climate conference that take will place in Paris in December of this year. The parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will convene The Twenty-First Conference of the Parties (COP-21). It will be either the next in a long string of international meetings that will accomplish virtually nothing or the subject of much optimism and the last great hope for real progress; it all depends on your point of view. But in these talks, it will be crunch time for international aviation: with frustrated governments craving some progress in lieu of their own, and with no government really owing its soul to the totality of global air travel, aviation starts to look like becoming that odd animal: the scapegoat.

In addition, as usual, there is a need for money—when was there not? The developing world cannot meet development goals and build economies that are sustainable without funds. Development funding is an enormous part of the climate conversation. That reality opens eyes to the possibility that air travel can become another kind of livestock: the cash cow. And the slings and arrows of this fraught discussion will be pretty consistently focused upon ICAO.

Many (most?) might think that the air industry would balk at the prospect of having to reduce CO2 emissions and pay for the privilege. That’s not the case. Airlines, speaking through the International Air Transport Association (IATA), have set fairly ambitious targets: No rise in absolute annual industry emissions from 2020 onward, and then starting a reduction to be down to fifty per cent of 2005 levels by 2050. The industry seems to accept wholeheartedly that its emissions profile must be made to disappear; the travelling public is anticipated to demand it. And a critical piece of the puzzle of meeting the goals over the next few decades is the ability to secure carbon credits or offsets commercially. My work has focused on sustainable fuel, but it will take a long time to implement the global de-carbonization of aviation fuel so there must exist the option, at least in the interim to ‘buy’ emissions reduction performance ‘retail’. This whole area is referred to as market-based measures (MBM.) ICAO has been tasked with coming up with an MBM regime.  But ICAO has no independent existence; it’s just a room filled with delegates from its member states: Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. In the Assembly sit 191 countries constituting every degree of development and wealth, every size, every culture, and every kind of political structure. Air carriers are as frustrated as anyone—and more frustrated than most—that their national governments have not been able to agree to MBM design and implementation. Some delegates want the forum to face the carbon challenge as the only matter under discussion. That’s understandable. Some want airlines from wealthy countries to underwrite development goals that have little to do with aviation. In some respects, this is also understandable. It’s just that the various attitudes, configurations of state interest, and respective domestic political dispositions have proved irreconcilable and often even bitterly divergent.

I think that it’s enough, in this first post of the ‘Sustaining Aviation’ series, to introduce you to ICAO and let you know what will preoccupy the industry and ICAO for the next seven months.