Plane speaking in Montreal

Air travel is causing an estimated 5% of global warming and its rapid growth is quite literally undercutting climate action in other areas of transport. Last year a T&E-commissioned study found that the growth in emissions from aviation and shipping will undo nearly half (43%) of the emissions reductions expected to be realised by the rest of transport in Europe through to 2030. It means that almost half of the already-inadequate emissions savings expected from land transport will be cancelled out by planes and ships.

Europe took an important first step in 2012 to put aviation in the EU ETS but, after less than 12 months, industry and foreign pressure forced the scope to be reduced to flights within Europe only. This so-called ‘stopping the clock’ was intended to give time for the UN aviation agency, ICAO, to act. Five years later what is being offered in return is a voluntary scheme encompassing 67 countries that requires their airlines to offset but not reduce emissions. Furthermore, difficult but absolutely essential decisions to establish environmental criteria determining the quality of the offsets to be used have yet to be taken – with the US and industry pushing for the cheapest (read: environmentally questionable) offset programmes to be included.

T&E’s strategy has always been to press Europe to act on its sovereign right to reduce its climate emissions by implementing an effective ETS, removing the counterproductive fuel tax and VAT exemptions which drive emissions growth, and stepping back from the mantra that unqualified aviation growth must be good. Unfortunately the Commission released a transport decarbonisation strategy which effectively ignored action on aviation climate change because ICAO was going to fix the problem for everyone. For T&E any global deal would represent the absolute minimum action necessary, and even then a lot of effort was expended highlighting the many weaknesses of developments at ICAO’s assembly in Montreal. Many officials and member states are still living a dream; unprepared to recognise that additional regional measures are essential if the Paris climate targets are to be met.


The road to an ICAO deal has been long, and it’s not over yet. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol called on developed states working through ICAO to limit and reduce their aviation emissions. Now, almost two decades later, agreement was reached on a “global” market-based measure exempting over 100 countries and postponing any decision on it being mandatory on the others probably until 2027. Earlier in the year ICAO had trumpeted an agreement on a global fuel efficiency standard for new aircraft. The only problem, as T&E and its coalition allies pointed out, is that it’s unlikely to have any effect on the building of cleaner aircraft and thus on the climate. The decision fell victim to commercial pressures, and allows older, less fuel-efficient models to remain in production up until 2028 – ensuring business as usual for the Airbus-Boeing duopoly.

October’s agreement on a market-based measure in Montreal was also heralded by ICAO, its member states and the aviation industry. T&E’s job was to make sure the world would hear the truth: the scheme will be voluntary for countries at least until 2028, and airlines from participating countries will be required to offset, not reduce, their CO2 emissions. While pushing countries to be more ambitious we explained to the world’s media how offsets, if not subject to strict environmental criteria, could prove a cheap solution for airlines but a disaster for the environment if they don’t really reduce emissions. ‘To be clear, the 15-year agreement would not force airlines to cut their pollution,’ Bloomberg bluntly reported. ‘Instead, companies would compensate for any emissions growth after the accord begins in 2021 by buying credits…’ The cost of those credits would be ‘peanuts,’ T&E’s Bill Hemmings explained. ‘It gets them (airlines) off the hook. Without enforced safeguards, it’s a massive green-washing exercise.’

“Airline claims that flying will now be green are a myth,” said Bill Hemmings of the Transport & Environment lobby group. “This deal won’t reduce demand for jet fuel one drop. Instead, offsetting aims to cut emissions in other industries.” Financial Times, 8 October 2016

In Montreal T&E tried to make the best of a bad situation by pressing for ways to improve the weak ICAO deal while simultaneously refuting greenwashing by an industry focused on obtaining a licence to grow. After the ICAO assembly our attentions turned back to Europe as the Commission reviewed regional action in light of the ICAO result. As part of overdue reforms to the EU ETS, lawmakers looked set to agree on a declining emissions cap which would raise climate ambition – and hopefully the price of carbon. While far from perfect, a strengthened ETS would mitigate almost four times more emissions from flights within Europe than if the ETS were to be replaced by the ICAO offsetting scheme, our study showed. Armed with this dose of reality, we won MEPs on the environment committee to our cause: aviation emissions would stay in the ETS, and with a declining cap, they said.

The year ended with EU lawmakers, at T&E’s urging, proposing to bring the cap on aviation emissions into line with other sectors, as part of a reformed ETS. Enshrining this in legislation this year is one element of a process in Europe to avoid planes undermining climate action in other industries.

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