‘Green’ fossil fuels to be allowed under latest weakening of UN aviation CO2 scheme

A UN scheme being set up to tackle the climate impact of flying will credit airlines that use fossil fuels that have been declared to be ‘green’. The extraordinary concession was pushed through by Saudi Arabia, with the backing of the United States, and means that, for example, airlines burning kerosene could be rewarded with reduced obligations to buy carbon offsets simply because the refinery producing the oil was running on renewable electricity.

The Saudis secured the new definition of alternative fuels to include ‘clean oil’ in the UN climate scheme – which is known as CORSIA – despite fossil fuel use having no future under credible climate plans. This redefinition, agreed after two weeks of talks at the council of the UN aviation agency ICAO in Montreal, is another downgrading of the environmental integrity of the scheme. Proposals put forward by European states to ensure the scheme’s effectiveness were summarily dismissed.

CORSIA aims to cap aviation’s future emissions growth – not by reducing aircraft emissions but by obliging airlines to buy offsets: payments for emission reductions in other sectors. However, the European Commission’s own research found that only 2% of offsetting projects under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) clearly reduce emissions. The EU banned offsets from its 2030 climate targets (the Effort Sharing Regulation).

T&E’s aviation manager, Andrew Murphy, said: ‘Moving to sustainable, non-fossil fuels is one of the most important ways to decarbonise flying but the ICAO scheme actually does the opposite. First ICAO removed virtually all sustainability criteria for biofuels, opening the door for palm oil, and now they’re even counting oil as green. This is looking more and more like an awful deal for the climate.’

Last November countries meeting at ICAO agreed to almost entirely remove sustainability criteria for jet biofuels to be credited under the offsetting scheme, which is likely to become the de facto global standard for biofuel use in the aviation sector. Back then EU member states caved in to pressure from Brazil, the US and others to slash the original set of 12 environmental and social safeguards down to just two. Rules on land rights, food security, labour rights and biodiversity protection were scrapped.

The scheme could be weakened even further next October when the ICAO council is set to decide on key rules covering the type of offsets which will be permitted. Earlier this year seven European countries indicated they could leave over concerns about further watering down of the scheme’s environmental integrity.

T&E welcomed the ICAO council’s agreement on the rules governing the monitoring and reporting provisions of the scheme as there is currently no reporting scheme in place for international aviation emissions. The European Council and Parliament will consider their implementation over the coming months just as the European Commission prepares a pathway to the complete decarbonisation of the EU economy.

Andrew Murphy added: ‘Next year the European Commission will present a plan to decarbonise Europe by 2050. That strategy can’t be credible without a plan to decarbonise the fastest growing climate problem. With the ICAO process racing for rock bottom, it is now clear we’ll need the EU to take matters into its own hands and introduce measures to end aviation’s tax-free status, drive the uptake of low-carbon fuels and technologies, and begin to tackle the non-CO2 greenhouse gas effects of flying.’

ICAO’s environmental rulemaking has been coming under increasing scrutiny including in a court case in the Netherlands. NGOs have said they are considering whether to appeal a ruling by a Utrecht court that the Dutch government does not have to publish a secret ICAO report on environmental standards for aircrafts.

Natuur & Milieu, supported by Transport & Environment and ClientEarth, had filed a complaint to force publication of the report, which influenced the drafting of a controversial CO2 standard for new aircraft. The Netherlands, which is a member of ICAO, refuses to give the report to Natuur & Milieu as well as other organisations, journalists and parliamentarians.

Following the ruling, the three organisations called on the Dutch and other European governments to not use this ruling as a blank cheque in order to keep the public in the dark as to how aviation environmental rules are drafted.

Andrew Murphy said: ‘There’s a vicious circle at play with ICAO continuing to adopt very ineffective climate rules in secret and governments subsequently hiding behind that secrecy.The Dutch and other European governments need to stick to their Aarhus commitments to transparency and not hide behind UN secrecy rules.’