Biden also comes with risks for climate action

William Todts — January 21, 2021

When Donald Trump came to power back in 2016 we wrote an op-ed arguing Europe now had a big opportunity to reclaim its lost clean tech and climate leadership. It was counterintuitive at the time, but by and large, this is exactly what happened. Four years on, Joe Biden is widely expected to be good on climate action, and his decision, on day one, to rejoin the Paris agreement bears that out. But there are some real risks too, and nowhere is this more true than for aviation and shipping.

Contrary to what you’d expect, bouts of EU activity in these sectors usually coincide with Republican administrations. Aviation’s inclusion in the EU ETS was conceived during the Bush years but was attacked by Obama who forced Europe to put two-thirds of the scheme on hold. The same president led efforts at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to develop a do-nothing CO2 standard and the now infamous CORSIA offsetting scheme. They were among the few climate agreements Trump didn’t trash. 

So, will it be different this time? 

So far the signals are worrying. Biden’s climate plan released during the primaries talks of renewed international action on ships and planes. So we may spend the next four years developing a non-binding aspirational global target for aviation and start a discussion about a toothless “market based mechanism” at the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Shouldn’t we give the international process “one more chance”? When it comes to COP, of course we should, but for ICAO and IMO the answer is a resounding no.

What needs to happen instead?

First the basics. Efficiency, degrowth, offsets or modal shift won’t decarbonise aviation and shipping. So, we need to develop and deploy zero-emission technologies for planes and ships. 10 years ago this would have sounded silly. Today, we know it can be done. We just don’t know how fast and at what cost. 

The answer is probably a lot faster and a lot cheaper than most people think. The boundaries of what is technologically possible are constantly shifting. Progress doesn’t just happen though. That’s because incumbent industries aren’t interested in disruption and new entrants need help to gain a foothold. That’s where regulators come in. 

The EU wants zero emission ships and planes to be deployed in the next 10-15 years and it has the power to make that happen. Its transport commissioner, Adina Valean, is working on a law to force oil companies to blend green fuels into jet fuel and shipping operators to use cleaner energy. If done right, this law could start the scaling of hydrogen based e-fuels such as e-kerosine and ammonia. While these now seem like the best available options, we need to keep an open mind, and also credit more speculative technologies such as electric or hydrogen planes and vessels. This will encourage startups to enter the race, beginning the virtuous cycle which helped bring about the clean power and electric car revolutions.

There is still a risk that Commissioner Valean gets sidetracked by the lure of LNG and biofuels. But we remain hopeful. After all it is the Commission who just released strategies stating that it wants to boost zero emission planes and ships running on hydrogen while minimising the use of biofuels.

Seen in that context, Biden relaunching the ICAO and IMO charades is distraction at best. ICAO and IMO have neither the ability nor the means to spur technological breakthroughs. That doesn’t mean Biden should just stand by. US air travel accounts for 22% and US shipping for 10% of global emissions. So we need Biden to act but if our aim is technological change, we don’t need more collaboration but more competition. We now see Tesla take on European companies such as VW in the roll-out for electric vehicles – why not unleash that same spirit between Airbus and Boeing? Or between Caterpillar and MAN Energy?

Amidst all the talk of renewed collaboration a call for rivalry may sound counterintuitive. But with both the Old Continent and Uncle Sam committed to climate neutrality, competition on the best way to get there is exactly what we need.

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