Europe weighs up options after weak global deal on aviation CO2

More than 65 countries have signed up to offset, but not reduce, aircraft emissions from international flights, starting in 2021. However, participation in the scheme until 2027 is voluntary and its coverage of emissions falls well short of the ‘carbon neutral growth in 2020’ target promised by UN aviation body ICAO and industry. The European Commission will now examine the agreement and decide what action to recommend be taken in light of the current suspension of the emissions trading system’s (ETS) coverage of flights into and out of Europe.

The Commission will need to cast a critical eye over the offsetting programme agreed by ICAO, which so far lacks clear rules on both the quality of offsets that will be recognised and how they are accounted for. ‘Double counting’ – when two or more individuals or organisations claim ownership of specific carbon offset projects – is one major problem with such programmes. Governments must also ensure the offsets bring carbon reductions that are additional – i.e. that would not have happened anyway.

EU lawmakers must also consider how aviation will contribute to meeting the bloc’s CO2 reduction targets. As the agreement only requires aircraft operators to offset their emissions above 2020 levels, carbon emissions from aviation can grow without restriction until then. Questions will also be asked of how the deal helps Europe meet its 2030 CO2 reduction targets. Only about 20% of total aircraft CO2 emissions between 2021 and 2035 will be offset, according to estimates.

Andrew Murphy, T&E aviation policy officer, said: ‘The agreement reached by ICAO in Montreal says airlines can emit increasing amounts of CO2 so long as the carriers pay for offsetting projects in other sectors. That shifts the burden onto other sectors to do more and does zero to shift passengers to less polluting ways of travelling such as rail. The EU’s next move must be to ensure aviation does its share of carbon reductions in Europe at least.’

T&E called on ICAO and the aviation industry to finalise and implement robust criteria for offsets and then develop further measures if the world is to have any hope of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. It said that large historical emitters like Europe and the US must introduce additional measures to close aviation’s emissions gap, such as strengthening the EU ETS and stripping aviation’s harmful privileges regarding taxation and subsidies.

T&E aviation director Bill Hemmings said: ‘Airline claims that flying will now be green are a myth. Taking a plane is the fastest and cheapest way to fry the planet and this deal won’t reduce demand for jet fuel one drop. Instead offsetting aims to cut emissions in other industries.’

Aviation is currently responsible for an estimated 5% of global warming. Aircraft CO2 alone is projected to quadruple and will potentially account for 22% of all CO2 emitted globally in 2050.

Bill Hemmings concluded: ‘This deal is not mission accomplished for ICAO, Europe or industry. The world needs more than voluntary agreements. Without robust environmental safeguards the offsets won’t cut emissions, leaving us with a deal that amounts to little more than adding the price of a cup of coffee to a ticket.’