Who bears the cost of airline emissions?

  • Mary Robinson
  • |
  • Updated: Nov 06, 2013 00:57 IST

The tenement blocks collapsed like sandcastles. Landmarks were swallowed up like Lego bricks. But most devastating of all was the massive loss of life — families torn apart by a disaster of frightening proportions. More than 5,700 people are missing and thought to have been killed as a result of the monsoon floods, which tore through northern India earlier this summer. The Potsdam Institute for Climate Research in Germany has linked global warming to the extreme rainfall, bringing home the shocking consequences climate change can have on those least responsible for it.

Shailesh Nayak, secretary, ministry of earth sciences, has made the same link, saying: “Extreme weather is becoming more common, the June 17 rains might be read in the context of climate change.” Carbon emissions come from multiple sources, but the fastest growing of them — international aviation — is one that few of northern India’s dead will ever have enjoyed.

Carbon dioxide emissions correspond surprisingly closely to social class. So in an inversion of the ‘polluter pays’ principle, it is the poor who are picking up the tab for the carbon profligacy of developed nations. This is the injustice of climate change.

Aviation is today responsible for some 2% of the planet’s man-made CO2 emissions. But when the effects of nitrogen oxide emissions, water vapour, soot and sulphates, contrails and enhanced cirrus cloud formations are also factored in, the best scientific estimates put aviation’s overall contribution to global warming at 4.9%.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has forecast that CO2 emissions from international aviation (about 60% of total aviation emissions) will grow from approximately 400 million tonnes in 2010 to 650 million tonnes by 2020. Unchecked, there may be a 274% increase in the fuel used by airlines by 2050, measured against 2006 levels.

Put plainly, the aviation industry bears a share of responsibility for the accelerated drought-flood cycle that climate change will bring to countries such as India.

We know some of the effects that global warming brings in its wake — more tropical storms, melting glaciers, freshwater shortages, increase in disease, and rising sea levels that will eventually drown low-lying coastal cities such as Mumbai and Kolkata.

We still have a sliver of time in which we can act to stop our mindless march to planetary disaster. The question of whether to implement a Market Based Measure (MBM), which could put a price on the carbon emissions of airlines, is now centre stage in ICAO’s consideration of how to address the impacts of aviation’s emissions.

The World Bank estimates that, with a carbon charge of $25 per tonne of CO2, $40 billion a year could be raised from the aviation and shipping sectors by 2020.

Research suggests that an aviation MBM could provide up to $26 billion in climate finance in 2030. This would be a significant amount, given that a total of $97 billion is currently flowing into low carbon and climate resilient development activities, according to the Climate Policy Initiative.

It could mean more flood barriers, better-built houses, and infrastructural support after climate disasters, to make the people most vulnerable to weather shocks less at the mercy of the climate we are creating for them.

If nothing is done, disasters like this year’s monsoon floods will only get worse, and more frequent. Doing nothing is not an option. The time for everyone to take their share of the responsibility and to act is now. And this must include the aviation industry.

Mary Robinson is a former president of Ireland and president of the Mary Robinson Foundation — Climate Justice

The views expressed by the author are personal


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