By Alice Bows-Larkin
“All adrift” was many years in the making. My research journey started with a focus on aviation and climate change in 2003, and it would be fair to say that I was unceremoniously thrown in at the deep end. Looking back, perhaps this was for the best, because had I realised how unpopular and apparently controversial some of my research findings at the time would be, I would have probably looked elsewhere to satisfy my academic appetite. Well before getting an opportunity to see my work formally published, I found myself building substantial radio, TV and other press experience; defending my analysis that suggested that the UK government needed to turn its attention to managing demand for air travel, if it wanted to tackle its CO2 emissions comprehensively.
So, while my focus started with attention on the UK, and stirred up interest from activists keen to demonstrate about the importance of climate change, and the contribution of airport expansion, it soon broadened out to consider the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme, as well as the global efforts to curb CO2 from the aviation sector. Then, broader still, to delve deeper into issues around the other ‘difficult’ sector in a similar boat (pardon the pun) – international shipping. Aviation and shipping release their emissions in international airspace and waters, which means that governance of their emissions, and subsequent mitigation efforts (or lack of), presented themselves as topics ripe for in-depth analysis.
From participating in numerous stakeholder workshops, industry conferences and public debates on the topic, what has always seemed clear to me is that these sectors are only doing what many others would like to do – delay any change that, while being good for CO2 emissions, apparently isn’t good for business. It is easy to criticise the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), and the slow progress made by both towards mitigation. Indeed in the run up to COP 21 in Paris this year, full incorporation of aviation in the EU’s ETS remains on hold until ICAO make a significant move on capping emissions through a market based scheme, anticipated to be in October 2016.
At the same time, the IMO rejected a call from the Marshall Islands, the world’s 3rd largest ship registry, to set a CO2 target for shipping. But these sectors simply reflect a reluctance by all sectors, especially those in wealthy nations, to accept mitigation measures in line with avoiding the 2°C target that are perceived to create economic losers as well as winners. Other sectors would probably be doing the same, if not bound by legal agreements. Moreover, and as the paper in Climate Policy discusses, even if ICAO were to agree a market based mechanism with a suitably stringent carbon cap, and the IMO were to ramp up its efficiency standard, emissions would not be mitigated in line with what is needed to avoid 2°C. But at least it would move us in the right direction.
The challenge with any of this work, is that the conclusions tend to be rather similar. It’s never been rocket science, even if some analysis in the literature presents itself in such as way as to suggest it is. Emissions rise as economic activity grows, as long as energy efficiency and/or carbon intensity improve at a slower rate than that growth. However, delivering constructive insights can be overlooked at the expense of trying to communicate how far off we are from the 2°C goal that we’ve set ourselves. Nevertheless, this article, and the research underpinning it, does try to provide a few pointers – it’s just that they are not necessarily welcome. For aviation, technical miracles will not be performed in the time left to curb CO2 commensurate with 2°C. Instead, work needs to urgently consider how to implement innovative policies that tackle the demand-side of the problem.
Perhaps an easier message emerges from our shipping research to date – there is a whole host of unexploited technical and operational opportunities to curb the CO2 from shipping, but the challenge is the sector’s complicated arrangement of ship owners, operators, charterers, registries and so on. On the other hand, aren’t these two sectors the ones with global governing bodies who could, in principle, establish rules and regulations to cut across complications arising from the traditionally national focus of mitigation policy? Wouldn’t it set a great example if, for once, the COP meeting delivered a few surprises – hard, closed caps for CO2 released in international airspace and waters, led from the front by ICAO/IMO – that would be a fine act to follow!