EU moves to protect its right to regulate aircraft emissions

European governments should hold off for now on signing up to a UN carbon offsetting scheme for aviation, according to an official EU proposal circulated last week – a copy of which was published by Politico. If agreed by a majority of member states, the EU member states of UN aviation agency ICAO would be required to reserve their position on the scheme and ‘file a difference’ with the agency before 1 December. This would protect the EU’s aviation climate legislation and gives the bloc time to fully evaluate the scheme before taking a final decision by 2020, as required by EU law.

The European Commission wants EU governments to notify ICAO of their reservation before the 1 December deadline because EU laws differ. Without filing a reservation, EU countries could be locked into the scheme, known as Corsia, and potentially compromise Europe’s ability to regulate emissions itself.

Corsia, risks creating a gap of 96.2 Mtonnes CO2 – equivalent to Europe’s annual steel and iron emissions – if it were to replace aviation’s inclusion in the EU emissions trading system (ETS), as industry is calling for, according to an expert study commissioned by T&E. Last month the European Parliament called for Europe not to sign up to the UN measure unreservedly.

Corsia begins on a voluntary basis in 2021 but airlines are required to monitor their emissions from January 2019. The scheme will cap airlines’ annual emissions at the level they reach in 2020. However, airlines can emit even more carbon by buying offsets – where they invest in environmental projects, such as windfarms which would have been built anyway, instead of reducing their own carbon footprint. Due to serious doubts over the environmental effectiveness of carbon offsets, Europe intends to discontinue their use in its climate policy from 2021. According to a recent study for the Commission, Corsia is based on offsets which may not reduce emissions in 98% of cases.

T&E’s aviation director, Bill Hemmings, said: ‘The EU must not sign up unconditionally to Corsia. At stake is not just whether the EU thinks Corsia is good enough, but whether we retain the right to regulate aviation emissions in Europe. The Commission did the right thing. Now member states need to make it clear that Europe won’t sacrifice our existing legislation or our right to regulate for Corsia by ‘filing a difference’. It’s a hugely important technicality that will protect the EU’s climate legislation and keep its legal options open.’

The Commission has proposed to facilitate reporting without prejudice to a final EU decision on participation. That final decision by the European Council and Parliament is not due until mid-2020 – after the Commission has evaluated the emissions impact of joining Corsia. But the EU is coming under pressure from airlines – with the support of the Trump administration and the UK government – to fully and unconditionally commit now to Corsia, which would threaten the legal basis of the EU aviation ETS.

Bill Hemmings concluded: ‘The ETS is the largest functioning international measure addressing aviation emissions covering over 500 airlines. The ETS isn’t perfect, but it’s the essential backbone for other European measures to clean up aviation such as cleaner fuels, ticket taxes or measures to reduce non-CO2 effects.’

EU governments discussed the Commission’s proposal last week and pressure is mounting on them to reach a decision ahead of 1 December, by which date a reply to ICAO is due.

While major doubts hang over the effectiveness of the ICAO scheme in reducing aircraft emissions, a new T&E report finds there is a way to stop and reverse aviation’s growing climate impact. Combined with other measures such as carbon pricing and stricter aircraft standards, synthetic electrofuels offer an almost zero-emissions alternative to fossil kerosene, the use of which should be driven out through carbon pricing.

Aviation is responsible for 5% of global warming and its rapid growth puts it on track to consume a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. But electrofuels can be produced today and deployed immediately using existing engines and infrastructure. They are produced by combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide, but to do this sustainably the hydrogen must be produced using renewable electricity and the CO2 captured directly from the air.

However, running aircraft entirely on synthetic fuels would increase the cost of a plane ticket by some 58% assuming kerosene remains untaxed, or 23% if a proper carbon price would be levied on kerosene, the report finds. Biofuels produced from wastes and residues can make a limited contribution too. Norway recently announced it would require jet fuel providers to blend half a percent of advanced biofuels into jet fuels from 2020.

T&E’s aviation manager, Andrew Murphy, said: ‘This report confirms that we need to decarbonise aviation if we want to avoid catastrophic global warming. The good news is that radically cleaner aviation is possible even with today’s technology. Getting to zero starts with properly pricing flying, and progressively increasing the use of sustainable synthetic fuels. There is a cost to this, but in light of how cheap subsidised air travel has become, and the incalculable cost of runaway climate change, it’s a price worth paying.’

To facilitate the progressive switch to electrofuels, demand for kerosene must start to be cut and carbon pricing must gradually be increased to the equivalent of €150 a tonne, the report finds. Taxing aircraft kerosene – currently exempt – and a strengthened EU ETS can help achieve this as can strict CO2 efficiency standards for planes and greater incentives for fleet renewal.

The European Commission has highlighted the role synthetic fuels can play in leaked versions of its strategy to decarbonise the EU’s economy by 2050. Also, last month the IPCC also emphasised the importance of synthetic jet fuel.

Andrew Murphy concluded: ‘Putting aviation on a pathway to zero won’t be easy but this report shows it can be done. If we want to succeed we need to stop pursuing false solutions. It’s crystal clear that the UN’s plan to let airlines offset their emissions is a distraction at best. We need governments to focus on the things that matter: proper pricing and cleaner fuels. The European Commission has a unique opportunity to commit to this in its 2050 decarbonisation strategy.’

T&E also called for the EU strategy to address the non-CO2 effects of aviation – NOx emissions at altitude, contrails, cirrus cloud formation, soot – which are equal or exceed those of CO2. It said the Commission must respond with a full assessment and proposal on non-CO2 measures by January 2020, as the revised ETS Directive requires.