International shipping and aviation remain the elephants in the room at COP21

The Paris agreement of Dec 12, 2015 will most likely go down in history as a major tipping point in the fight against climate change. It is an ambitious and important document, but it is not without its shortcomings. One of the most notable of these shortcomings is the lack of any mention of emissions from international shipping and aviation. Although the draft text had previously contained references to the industries, those were dropped in the draft text published on Wednesday, Dec 9, and never re-introduced.

International shipping represents 2.4% of international GHG emissions, and international aviation accounts for 1.3%; together, their emissions are similar to those of Germany or the UK. The inclusion of international shipping and aviation in an international agreement is important because they are not addressed by any individual country’s INDC. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Civil Aviation (ICAO) are the UN bodies overseeing these industries, and they are not part of the UNFCCC.

As reported by Politico, the earlier text of the agreement had included language directing the IMO and the ICAO to “pursue the limitation or reduction” of emissions, “with a view to agreeing concrete measures addressing these emissions, including developing procedures for incorporating emissions from international aviation and marine bunker fuels into low-emission development strategies.”

The IMO and ICAO have each set some of their own targets for efficiency improvements within their respective industries. The IMO has legally required that ships built in 2025 be 30% more efficient than those built in 2014. The ICAO emphasized at COP21 its multiple efforts to reduce emissions through “more efficient air traffic management and other operational improvements, the use of fuel-efficient aircraft technologies, and the deployment of sustainable alternative fuels for aviation.” Aviation fuel is a key cost driver, so the industry is already somewhat incentivized to reduce emissions. The same is not true of shipping; customers paying for cargo transport also pay for the fuel required, so the ship owners are not incentivized to improve their fuel efficiency.

More dramatic long-term change is necessary in both of these industries. As reported in The New York Times, the European Commission estimates that “by 2020, international aviation emissions could be 70 percent higher than in 2005, even if fuel efficiency improves by 2 percent a year.” The organizations could have been required to make INDC-like pledges on behalf of their industries. Such pledges could have had real effect; members of the ICAO, for example, are required to implement standards that are at least as stringent as those adopted by the ICAO.

Their inclusion in the Paris agreement would have provided the long-term signals needed to drive innovation in substantially cleaner fuels. This drive is crucial because a large part of the challenge of requiring lower emissions from these industries is the lack of clear technical solutions. Aviation and international shipping are both very demanding scenarios for fuel. Whatever technology used must be very reliable — there’s no stopping to charge your batteries in the middle of the Pacific Ocean or while flying 36,000 feet in the air. Additionally, safety standards for aviation mean that bringing new technologies to a wide market can take years, if not decades. For this reason, biofuels are seen as a potentially promising solution for the airline industry, since they do not require dramatically different technology, though substantial questions remain about scaling up biofuel production to the necessary levels.

Another part of the challenge of regulating aviation and shipping is that these industries are key economic players in many countries. Even small island states, for example, rely on them to connect with the rest of the world. Any meaningful regulation is likely to be expensive, and possibly could deal serious blows to economies that rely on international trade and/or tourism. The ICAO and the IMO could very well decide to implement some sort of emissions regulation in their upcoming meetings. If not, this issue is almost certain to resurface at future UNFCCC conferences.