Aviation and the Paris & Kyoto Climate Agreements

In May 1992, at Rio de Janeiro’s Earth Summit, the UN adopted its Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with the aim of stabilising global greenhouse gas emissions to avoid dangerous levels of global heating. It was signed by 154 countries. Since 1995, the member parties have met every year to assess progress and review targets. These meetings are known as Conferences of Parties (COPs).

The two most widely known results of the COPs were the Kyoto Protocol, and the Paris Agreement. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol established the first legally binding obligations for greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries, and a subsequent statement in 2010 declared that the ‘safe’ global temperature increase was no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. In 2015, the Paris Agreement revised this figure down to 1.5°C, although unlike Kyoto, each country is simply ‘encouraged’ to aim for this target, rather than legally bound. The Paris Agreement will take over from the Kyoto Protocol in governing emissions from member countries from 2020 onwards.

United nations paris agreement 2015 photo
Countries signed up to the Paris Agreement are required to design, submit and implement their own climate action plans, and the plans and progress will be assessed and reviewed. However, as these ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ are not legally binding, there is little – if any – reprisal for countries who do not meet their targets. According to the UN itself, “There is no benefit to flouting the Agreement. Any short-term time gain will be short-lived. It will undoubtedly be overshadowed by negative reactions, by other countries, financial markets, and most important, by their citizens.” In other words, punishment, if any, for non-compliance will simply be left up to market forces.

The Climate Agreements and aviation
Crucially, emissions from international aviation and shipping are not included in individual countries' Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) set under the Kyoto or the Paris Agreements. This is despite the fact that, in order to keep within the 1.5°C or 2°C targets, emissions from international aviation and shipping must be curbed. Domestic routes are included, and emissions must be counted as part of each party’s targets. But international routes are managed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO), rather than individual countries. There are various arguments for their exclusion from these targets: these sectors are essential for economic development; aviation, in particular, currently has no realistic alternative to fossil fuels; and the Agreements’ concession for developing countries goes against IMO and ICAO principles that all countries should be treated equally.

Written by Vicki Brown