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  • A false dawn for action on aviation emissions

    Last week’s deal reached at ICAO, the UN agency, to establish a global offsetting programme for aviation received a mixed response, yet it was heralded by industry and some policymakers as the dawn of sustainable aviation.

    Were that to be the case, it would be an exciting developed indeed. Aviation is responsible for almost 5% of global warming, with a CO2 impact equal to Germany. And its emissions are expected to grow and grow – by as much as 300% by 2050. We’ll fall short of the Paris Agreement goals unless there is strong action on this sector.

    ICAO’s CORSIA (Carbon Offset and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) as it stands can’t be considered effective climate action for a number of reasons.

    For the period 2021-2035, ICAO and industry committed to stabilise the growth of aviation emissions at 2020 levels. However last week’s deal falls well short of even this modest goal, which itself falls well short of the 80-90% emission cuts required by Paris. Due to countries failing to join what has become a voluntary agreement, and because developed countries are to date refusing to make up the emissions gap, the measure falls short of the 2020 goal by about 20%.

    Emissions reductions are to be achieved using offsets – airline operators paying for emission reductions in other sectors, rather than reducing their own emissions. This goes against the objective of the Paris Agreement, which requires all sectors to reduce their emissions, not just pay others to cut theirs. And for the period 2021-2035, it’s at most 20% of total emissions which will be offset.

    Offsetting can only be a small first step. And only if ICAO rules around which offsets are permitted are strong, global and strictly enforced. The EU has considerable experience with the issue of offset quality, being the world’s largest purchaser of offsets. It knows the pitfalls – one study found that 75% of the offsets it purchased under certain programmes had dubious or negligible climate benefits. Over time the EU has tightened the rules for which offsets are allowed and has decided that as from 2021 offsets will not count towards meeting 2030 emissions reduction targets  

    Given the heavy reliance on offsetting, you would expect that last week’s ICAO agreement would  contain robust rules on which ones would count in the CORSIA. However the agreement is mostly silent on this issue, except for an important reference to what’s known as no double-counting. It has been left to so-called ‘technical meetings’ over the next two years to agree what is a highly political and contentious issue within ICAO. The great risk is that industry and certain states will push for the weakest possible criteria. If that happens, the measure risks being environmentally worthless.

    If NGOs speak with disappointment or frustration about what was agreed in Montreal, it’s because we know that so much more is both needed and possible. Earlier this year ICAO agreed the essentials of the first ever CO2 efficiency standard for new aircraft, but decided behind closed doors to introduce loopholes which means it won’t kick in until 2028 and as a result the standard will have no environmental impact. A real efficiency standard would drive essential in-sector emission reductions, however that’s not what we got.

    For a global market based measure, there were also other, more effective, options. After agreeing to establish such a measure after its 2013 assembly, ICAO considered a number of different types of market mechanisms, including emissions trading and carbon pricing. Very quickly, ICAO  discarded these policies in favour of offsetting – the industry option – with no revenue raising component

    In the midst of this disappointment, there is some grounds for optimism. A number of states spoke powerfully at the assembly about the need to take climate action seriously. This included a number of developing states who are extremely vulnerable to climate change. Such statements were a welcome departure from previous assemblies where climate action was seen primarily as a European concern. We need to encourage  this coalition of enlightened states and make sure they act as a driver of ambition.

    The other reason for optimism is the consensus, reflected in a last minute change to the text, that developed countries (i.e. EU, US, Canada) must lead on this issue. That’s an important green light for Europe to start introducing more effective policies to limit aviation’s climate impact than it has done to date. Canada has shown some inspiration – last week it announced a $50 carbon price, which will include domestic aviation.

    Aviation’s climate impact is substantial and growing. Real action is required to address this. Europe is to be credited for helping to broker what could be the start of such work at the global level. However much, much more needs to be done at international, regional and national level. Talk of flying green and the dawn of sustainable aviation is misleading and misplaced. The measures agreed this year won’t fully kick in for almost a decade. The growth in aviation and shipping alone may cancel out the emissions reductions the road sector might deliver through to 2030.

    Now that we know more or less the ambition that can be agreed at global level – as set out in the ICAO agreement – the task for policymakers in Europe and North America is clear. Without much more serious action on aviation emissions from these regions, which are after all the large emitters, there is no chance of meeting the ambition required by the Paris Agreement.