Greta Thunberg is stuck in the United States.
The 16-year-old climate activist sailed across the Atlantic on a carbon-free yacht this summer for the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York City. Now that December’s UN Climate Change Conference has been relocated from Chile to Spain, she needs a lift back to Europe, but refuses to hop on a plane.
Aviation accounts for 2.4 percent of global emissions—a figure that can seem insignificant until it’s put into context. In more personal terms, a roundtrip flight from London to New York emits 2,173 pounds of carbon—more than the ’s native Sweden, there’s a word for the sickening feeling these statistics evoke: flygskam, or “flight shame.”generates in a year. In Thunberg
Fewer are familiar with the agency that orchestrates all that international air travel. But the UN’s , which concluded its fortieth assembly in October, is a name worth knowing: in many ways, the low sticker price and high environmental costs of international flight today can be traced back to ICAO’s first meeting 75 years ago. And the future of travel could be determined by what they do next.
In 1944, in the thick of World War II, representatives of 54 nations convened in Chicago for the first Convention on International Civil Aviation. At the time, the majority of plane power was used for military goals, like moving soldiers or cargo. The job of the so-called Chicago Convention was to chart a course for the future of civilian flight.
The resulting agreement, which 52 nations signed on December 7, 1944, formally defined airspace and its management, and created ICAO to regulate it all. But one of its most important decisions, in hindsight, was to exempt any fuel aboard international flights from customs duty. While the Chicago Convention has grown (193 member nations at last count) and changed (eight revisions and many new resolutions), the jet fuel tax exemption stands.
“The agreement that was signed was basically to help kickstart what was then quite a small, fledgling aviation industry,” said Roger Tyers, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Southampton studying consumer attitudes toward aviation. It worked: more than four billion passengers now , compared to just 310 million passengers in 1970.
The international law has no bearing on domestic travel, so a nation can tax fuel internally—if it wants to. In the United States, for example, the tax rate is primarily determined at a state level, though the Federal Aviation Administration dictates those funds airport maintenance and upgrades. By contrast, member states of the European Union have fuel taxes on domestic flights altogether. All the Chicago Convention forbids (at least in the of the law) is taxing the jet fuel commercial aircraft carry on international flights.
But this seemingly small exemption has far-reaching implications. Coupled with the “is the number one reason why flying is disproportionately cheap,” Tyers told me. Though it’s difficult to project how an international fuel tax would change the industry globally, smaller-scale examples suggest the results would be substantial.and the , the tax exemption
Earlier this year, the European Commission€0.33 tax on every liter of jet fuel sold within the European Union. Member nations this within the parameters of the Chicago Convention, but haven’t tried yet. The commission concluded that such a move would raise ticket costs 10 percent across the board and cut the number of travelers, industry jobs, and emissions by 11 percent.on the implications of a theoretical
In October, as Thunberg was preparing for the youth climate strike in New York City, ICAO convened its triennial assembly in Montreal. The body held board elections, discussed legal issues, and also featured contentious debate about aviation and environmental priorities. While, according to aviation analyst Alex Macheras’s on the proceedings, a Finnish delegate talked about her determination “to ensure aviation is considered an acceptable form of transport,” and a representative from Qatar presented on the environmental costs of Saudi Arabia closing its airspace to Qatari jets, forcing them into carbon-intensive alternative routes, the main issue was opposition to ICAO’s Climate Change Resolutions.
In 2010, ICAO membersto ensure industry growth is carbon-neutral growth after 2020 and by 2 percent per year through 2050. To deliver on these arbitrary and , ICAO in 2016 adopted the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), which will eventually require airlines operating certain international flights to purchase emissions offsets and use more biofuels.
For environmentalists, ICAO’s climate change resolutions are too little, too late. Carbon is being addressed, but other pollutants like nitrogen oxides aren’t. And 2 percent annual improvements in fuel efficiency are effectively meaningless when demand is growing more than . Yet for countries like China, which the climate resolutions at the most recent assembly, ICAO’s proposal is seen as an unwanted restraint on the airline industry’s growth.
Thus far, the ICAO assembly doesn’t seem inclined to revisit the jet fuel tax exemption.* Just as concerning, ICAO could prevent countries from implementing their own emissions offsetting strategies. At least five nations “insisted on CORSIA being the sole mechanism anywhere,” , which could complicate the European Union’s market-based emissions trading scheme.
Paul Steele, vice president of the International Air Transport Association, reportedly told the assembly what he had observed was “unprecedented” and “a step backward.” ICAO declined to comment for this story, citing its policy against speculating “on legal matters, including the potential interpretations of the Convention on International Civil Aviation.”
In the absence of strong international leadership, individuals are left to their own devices to combat the climate crisis. In some cases, as with carbon offsets, fliers have the same recourse as airlines: both can pay to plant more trees or fund a new solar farm. But the carbon offset market is full of , and no offset is better than not emitting in the first place.
Ultimately, airlines and the various governmental and non-governmental entities that oversee them are the only ones who can lead the systemic change we need. They can develop and purchase alternative fuels, negotiate more direct routes through contested airspace, and, if only it was legal, tax jet fuel on international flights.
In 1944, the Chicago Convention’s fuel exemption made some sense. It was crafted in the spirit of friendship and expanding postwar recovery and economic capabilities—not under the specter of climate change. But 75 years later, fliers find themselves in a different position. It’s clear that the best thing for humanity is curbing emissions, but the convention hasn’t evolved as quickly as the science. While potential fliers debate individual ethics, like Thunberg’s aviation abstention or the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s private jet, the ICAO assembly has the ability to make a much bigger, systemic difference.* So far, it seems to lack the will.
*This piece has been updated for clarity.