How battered island nations helped seal an emissions deal

By Camille von Kaenel | 10/07/2016 08:24 AM EDT

MONTREAL — Arnold Franck was 1,800 miles away from his island nation of Haiti this week when Hurricane Matthew washed away entire towns and claimed nearly 300 lives. But, he said, being here at a meeting of the United Nations’ aviation agency was critical for Haiti’s future.

Franck, the director of air transport for Haiti’s national civil aviation office, said countries considering a plan before the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to limit global aviation emissions needed to hear what climate change means for poor and vulnerable nations.

"This is urgent," he said on the sidelines of negotiations. "We must go forward."


Two hours later, aviation became the first global industry to limit its carbon footprint as ICAO approved a plan to offset carbon emissions growth from international flights after 2020. Coming on the heels of the global Paris climate agreement hitting the threshold to enter into force, ICAO Council President Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu called the plan’s approval another "Paris moment."

The approval came with the overwhelming support of the 2,000 or so delegates here, despite some objections from Russia, India and Saudi Arabia. It was a political win for negotiators who had long struggled to smooth tensions between fast-growing and established travel markets over which should shoulder the burden for cutting aviation’s global warming impact. The airline industry had set a goal six years ago for carbon-neutral growth from 2020.

The momentum seemed to shift this August when negotiators changed the first part of the scheme, from 2021 to 2027, from mandatory for bigger aviation markets to voluntary. They tapped into the powerful force of peer pressure. Sixty-five countries representing more than 80 percent of the sector’s carbon emissions had volunteered to participate before the deal was even final.

Among the governments that will participate from the start: the United States, the European Union, China, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates — and several small countries that would otherwise be exempt but that are threatened by climate change.

Indeed, from Haiti to the Marshall Islands, tales from countries on the front lines of climate change made a difference at the usually dry and technical U.N. meeting.

"As the talks here go on and on, climate change is having real and heavy impacts on islands and countries like ours," a delegate from the landlocked and drought-stricken West African nation of Burkina Faso told negotiators in French, according to a copy of his remarks. "Temperatures are rising and increasingly more human lives are lost as we keep traveling and debating in the utmost comfort."

Burkina Faso, despite "quasi-nonexistent" air traffic, would choose to opt into the scheme from the start in the name of the victims of climate change, he said. The room exploded with applause.

The Marshall Islands and Papua New Guinea also chose to opt in from the very beginning, citing the urgency of climate change. A reconvening of the "high-ambition coalition," a group of states that came together in the lead-up to the Paris Agreement, led by the Marshall Islands and other small island developing states, to drum up support for climate efforts, convinced others to speak out.

As Hurricane Matthew blew across Haiti, Nari Williams-Singh, director-general of the Jamaica Civil Aviation Authority, delivered remarks about the threat of climate change in the region on behalf of the 15 states in the Caribbean Aviation Safety and Security Oversight System.

His country is still weighing whether or not to opt into the first phases of the scheme, he said.

For small island developing states, attention will now turn to the other global sector left out of the Paris Agreement: shipping.

"We’re proud aviation is taking the lead, but it’s only 2 percent. What about the other 98 percent? What about maritime and road transport, which are bigger? If they don’t carry on, what’s the point of arguing over 2 percent?" said Joseph Niel, director of the Civil Aviation Authority of Vanuatu, a low-lying Pacific archipelago that was the first to have to relocate residents because of climate change.

The International Maritime Organization, the U.N. body overseeing shipping, will consider environmental protection measures at the end of this month. States have been working on efficiency and data collection measures. A sectorwide cap on emissions, which might eventually lead to a market-based measure, was proposed by the country with the third-largest shipping registry in the world — the Marshall Islands.