Major Airline Climate Decision Flying Under the Radar

Early this fall, a relatively unknown agency of the United Nations will be deciding on what to do about the massive amounts of climate pollution produced by the global airline industry.

The global aviation sector, mainly made up of commercial passenger airlines, is responsible for a whopping six-percent of all industrial climate emissions. If the aviation sector were a country, they would be the seventh largest climate polluter in the world.

While other major polluters, like the U.S. coal industry, are facing imminent regulation of their carbon emissions, the question of how to deal with airplanes polluting as they fly around the world remains elusive. It is tricky when you think about it: if an airline owned by a U.S. company, where there is no carbon tax, flies over a country like Germany where there is a carbon tax, should that U.S. airline be charged a carbon tax by Germany?

The issue is so tricky that the UN agency ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Organization), which was given responsibility fifteen years ago to come up with a plan for reducing carbon emissions from the aviation sector, has yet to develop an agreeable solution. Of course, it doesn't help that some airlines, namely major US carriers like United Airlines, have been throwing big lobbying dollars around that have effectively delayed any major action so far.

In late September, ICAO is expected to once again make a recommendation on how to regulate emissions from the aviation sector at a major summit in Montreal, Canada. Rumor is that ICAO will likely punt off a decision once again, to be made at some much later date.

While major issues around energy and climate change, like the Keystone XL pipeline and Canada's tar sands, are regularly and justifiably in the headlines, this sleeper issue of global airplane emissions continues to fly low. It is a complicated piece of international policy that will likely start to gain attention as other sectors begin to deal with, and take responsibility for, their contributions to global climate change.