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A plane is seen during take off in New Jersey behind the Statue of Liberty in New York's Harbor as seen from the Brooklyn borough of New York February 20, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

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By Allison Lampert

MONTREAL (Reuters) - A deal to limit carbon emissions from global civil aviation could be voluntary for the first five years instead of mandatory for certain countries under the current proposal, four sources familiar with the matter said.

Facing an October deadline, countries have been unable so far to agree on the metrics that would oblige participants to be included, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are involved in the talks and the idea of a voluntary first phase has not been made public.

The United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) meets Sept. 27 to Oct. 7 and it will be under pressure to finalise a deal that would cap the carbon pollution of all international flights at 2020 levels. Aviation was excluded from last December's climate accord in Paris when countries agreed to limit the rise in global temperatures to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

One source from an Asian member state of the ICAO said many countries were receptive to a voluntary first phase. A second source, a Western state negotiator, said that the deal would be effective if the countries that generate most of the world's aviation emissions join.

"What's going to make or break this is knowing who is going to be in the first phase," the Western negotiator said.

Airlines from countries that voluntarily participate would have to limit their emissions or offset them by buying carbon credits from designated environmental projects around the world.

The market-based plan must win the support of ICAO’s 191 member states at its assembly in Montreal, or risk the European Union breaking off talks and imposing its own emissions trading plan on international airlines.

An ICAO spokesman said the agency would only know its members' positions at the assembly and otherwise declined comment.

Some environmental groups said a voluntary first phase waters down a deal that already exempts too many countries, including most developing states, during its first five years.

"Aviation, in particular, will need to make a fair contribution on the needed emissions reductions," Bill Hemmings, director of aviation and shipping at Transport & Environment in Brussels, a non-governmental organization, said in an email.

"A voluntary scheme will not achieve this," Hemmings said.

Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, noted other global climate agreements such as the Paris deal were voluntary, but contained participation thresholds that had to be met for the deal to take effect.

Countries are under pressure to approve the two-phase agreement, starting in 2021, that would curb emissions from aviation, a sector that would be the world’s seventh largest carbon emitter if it were a country. The mandatory second phase would begin in 2026.

The United States, Canada, Mexico and Singapore have said they would join the first phase, while European negotiators want the 44 states in the European Civil Aviation Conference to participate, said two of the sources.

It is not yet known whether India and China with their fast-growing aviation sectors would volunteer for the first phase. A spokesman for India at ICAO declined to make his country's position public, while China's air transport industry association could not be reached for comment.

Countries with a high-growth aviation sector want more latitude to produce emissions than developed countries, which are growing more slowly but were responsible for generating the bulk of the industry's greenhouse gases.

Most future global air traffic will come from Latin America and Asia, according a New Climate Economy report this year. In 1993, more than 73 percent of all traffic was carried by airlines in Europe or North America. By 2033, that share is expected to shrink to 38 percent.

(Additional reporting by David Stanway in Shanghai; Editing by Amran Abocar and Grant McCool)

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