International Trade Emissions: Shipping and Aviation Overreach

International transport emissions_ship-plane_Flickr.Phil.Norton
International Trade and Travel, Warming the World

The climate crisis will not wait for anyone. Unfortunately, the widely praised Cop 21 UN Climate Conference agreements this past winter failed to take committed action of adequate urgency. Instead, it accomplished what many thought impossible: it gained agreements from most nations to standards for voluntary actions to reduce carbon emissions by the 2%.

That standard scientists had already agree will be insufficient to avoid major climate disruption. Neither the inadequate 2% nor the aspirational 1.5% will possibly be achieved under the regime of uncommitted voluntarism. If you add up the voluntary actions, assuming they will be achieved, the result is around 3% of pre-industrial levels of atmospheric carbon. The climate consequences of that much warming will be catastrophic. We are beginning an international death dance as already accumulated greenhouse emissions continue to disrupt the climate. There is more to come and no relief in sight.

The most recent UN Climate Agreements failed to address carbon emissions from shipping and aviation at all. Each comes under the jurisdiction of separate international regulatory bodies. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) regulates international commercial aviation. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) regulates international shipping. Neither of these organizations is particularly focused on reducing carbon emissions.

The IMO has a committee assessing greenhouse gas emissions from shipping. The ICAO has a committee looking into market mechanisms such as emissions trading schemes. In neither aviation nor shipping are meaningful steps being taken now to actually reduce carbon emissions by these industries. Both facilitate the growth in international trade, which as a centerpiece of the globalized growth economy is a major factor in accelerating carbon emissions and climate chaos.

Aviation and Shipping Emissions: Global Inefficiency

The global growth economy relies heavily on transporting goods and materials in giant cargo ships, driven by huge diesel engines. The airlines increasingly transport goods as well as people to meet the pressures of just-in-time parcel delivery, tourism, and business travel. The “flying public” continues to grow, largely oblivious to its carbon footprint.[1] The airline industry alone accounts for about 2% of global carbon emissions. That may not sound like much, but it is. International shipping accounts for more than another 2% of global human-made emissions as of 2012, according to the IMO. Emissions from aviation and shipping are likely to grow with the global economy, barring another international financial collapse. No serious regulatory constraint appears on the horizon.

A common misconception about shipping is that because goods made in China and shipped to the U.S. cost less than those made here, they are also more energy efficient. Not so. Economic distortions based on the international flow of capital to exploit lower labor costs do not make for energy efficiency. They just lower costs of manufacture. Much fossil fuel is burned because of international shipping of goods that could otherwise be manufactured in the country of consumption. The “global economy” is a huge contributor to carbon emissions overshoot. Financial “efficiencies” of distorted capital and labor markets do not produce energy efficiency; they produce waste and pollution, along with labor injustice.

Economic globalization has accelerated both oceanic shipping and aviation. Significant growth in both are projected for the coming decades. At the same time, no viable constraints on resultant carbon emissions are likely. The UN Commission on shipping is mired in accumulating data on fuel consumption. Airlines are mostly developing optimistic projections of becoming “green” via unrealistic plans for adopting new fuels and unproven technologies. Most of it is little more than propaganda. It is all predicated upon unsustainable growth. It is another example of the sham of the “greening” of business as usual. The consequences will be catastrophic.

Mother Nature Makes No Exceptions

“Text urging countries to pursue ‘concrete measures’ through the IMO and ICAO was dropped in the second week of Paris talks,” reports Megan Darby in an article in These industries are transnational; they are not located in any one nation. Left to their own devises, these sectors will act like other industries and promote false images of climate action as they seek the least-cost options they are allowed. Because shipping and aviation are not mentioned in the Paris agreements, neither have any formal obligation to meet any particular emissions-reduction target. Acting in the public interest is not a viable option for any one company when not required of all its competitors.

Some airlines are promoting their “green” programs in spite of their marginal efforts to improve energy efficiency, even projecting responsibility onto their customers. Admonishing passengers to travel lighter is a trivial factor as jumbo-jet travel grows. KLM, Royal Dutch Airlines, on which I flew recently, is a case in point. I was quite impressed by the service, efficiency, and friendliness of all the KLM employees with whom I had contact. Their professionalism was superior to any other airline I have experienced in the last decade. The Dutch seem so well organized and happy.

About to board KLM “heavy”

But KLM operates on the same emissions illusions as other airlines. On the long flight back from Amsterdam, I surveyed the options on the video screen on the back of the seat in front of me. Under the heading “About KLM,” I found a statement on the environmental policy of the airline. It made the usual claims about the company’s efforts to reduce emissions by various minor efficiencies and plans for future improved technologies. It was a slick piece of marketing copy with virtually no substance.

Commercial aviation, like global shipping, is rife with waste. The relatively low prices for flights to various countries support travel that far exceeds genuine need. Airline prices do not reflect the true costs of aviation for the planet and all of us who reside upon it. What would the price of a ticket from Los Angeles to New York, or New York to Paris cost, I wonder, if the cost of the attendant carbon emissions to the planet were built into the ticket price? If prices reflected those externalized costs, I would likely stay home. If the costs to the planet are considered, both airline travel and shipping will be severely curtailed very soon.

Transportation and communication are core sectors of the endless-growth global economy. Neither can be sustained in their present configurations if we intend to mitigate the worst effects of global warming. Emissions resulting from the use of information technology – smartphones, the Internet, and cloud computing – account for another 2.5% of all carbon emissions – another sector that largely ignores its own carbon footprint. Every element of the current globalized economy will have to be completely transformed rapidly to avoid total climate catastrophe. Yet, little of this has even entered the public discourse. Calling this a “global crisis” is a vast understatement.

[1] An interesting article by Peter Kalmus in Yes magazine, reflects on the carbon footprint of commercial aviation by analyzing his own professional travel. Kalmus is a climate scientist who has chosen to not fly because of the calculations he did to estimate the CO2 emissions per mile from flying. His 50,000 miles of flying in 2010, he calculated to have produced most of his total carbon emissions. But the mono-nitrogen oxides that form jet contrails and seed cirrus clouds, add to atmospheric warming as well. A round trip, Los Angeles to Paris and back, emits 3 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere – that’s 10 times the annual emissions of the average Kenyan. The article is posted at

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