Collaboration Calls for New U.N. Agency to Oversee Transport Emissions

international transportationA newly formed watchdog of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is proposing that the U.N. establish a new authority to regulate emissions from high-carbon international activities such as aviation and shipping.

The International Scientific and Business Congress on Protecting the Climate, a group of climate change policy negotiators, scientists, and business stakeholders, suggested that the UNFCCC establish a World Carbon Authority to oversee a global emissions cap-and-trade scheme that would apply initially to the transport sector. They made the proposal in an open letter sent to Rajenda Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and Björn Stigson, president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

The authority would be in charge of regulating aviation and shipping emissions that occur beyond a member nation's borders. U.N. organizations are currently crafting policies to regulate international transport emissions, which were exempt from the Kyoto Protocol. But Terry Barker, chair of the Congress, said he doubts those organizations can effectively hold their respective industries accountable.

"A substantial portion of emissions from aviation and shipping are outside international jurisdictions: international water, international air space," said Barker, an author of the IPCC's 2007 assessment on climate change and the director of Cambridge University's Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research. "It's difficult to see how they will be controlled.... I'm not convinced [current U.N. efforts] will be sufficient. It seems voluntary."

The IPCC estimates that aviation contributes about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and emissions from the sector are predicted to grow between two- and six-fold from now until 2050. Also, because aviation emissions are released higher in the atmosphere, their contribution to global warming is two to four times the rate of emissions closer to Earth, according to a European Union report.

Maritime shipping releases twice as many greenhouse gases as aviation, or about 4.5 percent of the world's total, a U.N. report said. More-frequent shipping is likely to increase emissions 30 percent by 2020. However, shipping, which carries 80 percent of world trade, is currently more fuel-efficient than aviation.

The Congress, organized by the Academy for European Management, proposed a World Carbon Authority to consolidate climate change efforts now under way at two U.N. agencies: the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Both organizations are drafting independent plans to address greenhouse gas emissions. But Barker accused them of being "captured by industry."

Jeffrey Shane, former undersecretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, said that although neither organization has passed a binding policy to reduce emissions, their members have indicated a new willingness to address climate change. "The industry is beginning to get it in a way we haven't seen in the past," he said. "The notion industry will do everything in its power to prevent a meaningful approach to carbon reduction is simply at odds with the facts."

The ICAO passed a resolution in September that said it would develop market-based measures to reduce emissions by the next major UNFCCC meeting, in Copenhagen in 2009. Giovanni Bisignani, director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), says his industry is focused on improving fuel efficiency, finding more direct flight paths, and developing bio-based fuel alternatives. The aviation industry "is not opposed to emissions trading providing that it is fair, global and effective," he said in a speech delivered on April 22. "And the only place to achieve that is at ICAO."

IMO committees have also been debating strategies to reduce emissions, but no official policy has been proposed. The marine transport agency will hold a meeting in Oslo, Norway, in June to discuss market-based greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

Like the Congress, several environmental groups are skeptical that the ICAO or IMO will reach a binding agreement on their own. "With ICAO, it's not clear they're moving expeditiously on this," said Deron Lovaas, a transportation analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The proof is in the policy, and we just haven't seen any proposed policy that ICAO and the industry will take care of it. It's not reassuring."

So far, the only proposed mechanism to address the climate impacts of international transport has been offered by the European Union, but it has not been adopted by other nations. The policy requires E.U. airlines to join the region's Emission Trading Scheme by 2012. If other nations agreed to the policy, those nations' airlines would likewise have to buy carbon credits for flights to or from the European Union or they would face E.U. sanctions. 

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute who covers everything environmental for Eye on Earth. He can be reached at