The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) heralded the agreement in October, of a new global market-based measure to control carbon emissions from international aviation, as an ‘historic agreement’. But will it make a difference to global climate change and deliver real carbon savings? I decided to take a closer look at the new Aviation Carbon Reduction Scheme…
Airlines fly over three billion passengers each year and this is expected to double by 2035. At the same time, air freight is growing steeply. By 2050, ICAO estimates that emissions from civil aviation could rise by 300% – 700%, with air traffic accounting for more than 20 per cent of total world greenhouse gas emissions by that time.
This level of growth is clearly not sustainable in the context of the urgent need to address global climate change. Earlier this month a new report suggested that previous climate change predictions may have been seriously under-estimated, because the climate becomes more sensitive to greenhouse gases as it gets warmer.
Campaigners were left in disbelief when the Paris Climate Change Agreement failed to address aviation in November last year. So, you might think that any agreement to limit emissions from aviation is a step in the right direction.
Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA)
In a statement released at the beginning of last month, ICAO said the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) was designed to complement mitigation measures that the air transport community is already taking to reduce emissions from international aviation. These include technical and operational improvements and advances in the production and use of alternative fuels.
Implementation of the CORSIA will begin with a pilot phase from 2021 through 2023, followed by a first phase, from 2024 through 2026. Participation in both of these early stages will be voluntary. The next phase from 2027 to 2035 would see the majority of states joining the scheme, with some exceptions.
Exemptions were agreed for Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Small Island Developing States (SIDS), Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs), and States with very low levels of international aviation activity.
The agreement aims to deliver ‘carbon neutral growth’ in international flights from 2020. But what does this mean and will it really be enough to tackle the fastest growing source of carbon emissions?
How will the scheme work?
The Aviation Carbon Reduction Scheme is basically a Carbon Offsetting Scheme. The average level of CO2 emissions from international aviation covered by the scheme, between 2019 and 2020, represents the baseline for carbon neutral growth from 2020, against which emissions in future years are compared. In any year from 2021, when emissions covered by the scheme exceed the average baseline emissions of 2019 and 2020, the difference represents the sector’s offsetting requirements for that year.
The CORSIA calls for international aviation to address and offset its emissions through the reduction of emissions elsewhere (outside of the international aviation sector), involving the concept of ’emissions units’. One emissions unit represents one tonne of CO2. Two main types of emissions units exist: ‘offset credits’ from crediting mechanisms and ‘allowances’ from emissions trading schemes.
Offsetting could be through the acquisition and redemption of emissions units, arising from different sources of emissions reductions achieved through mechanisms (such as UNFCCC’s Clean Development Mechanism), programmes (such as REDD+) or projects (like substituting coal-fired stoves with solar cookers). The buying and selling of eligible emissions units happens through a carbon market.
What are the issues?
The agreement has been criticised by some as having too many loopholes, and allowing the industry to continue to grow whilst paying for others to pick up the pieces. There does appear to be a number of issues with it:
1. Delayed start
The scheme doesn’t start until 2021, that’s five years without any need for action. Full implementation is not required until 2027, more than ten years from now. The airline industry is already lagging behind some other sectors that have been required to make progress sooner.
2. It is a voluntary agreement
According to ICAO, at least 64 states, including EU countries, the United States and China have declared their intention to participate in the voluntary phase of the scheme from 2021. This represents more than 80% of international aviation activity.
But a number of countries are unlikely to join, including Russia, India, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Chile, and the Philippines. The agreement doesn’t include routes between a participating nation and a non-participation nation.
3. No binding targets
The agreement talks of a ‘globally aspirational goal’ of carbon-neutral growth from 2020 onwards, not a binding target or commitment.
4. The plan isn’t actually to reduce emissions
The agreement aims to deliver ‘carbon neutral growth’ in international flights from 2020, so the aim is to offset any additional emissions NOT to actively reduce those already generated each year by international flights. It acts as a cap and requires airline operators to offset additional emissions to 2020 levels. It’s contribution to the aims of the Paris Climate Agreement, which requires an actual reduction in global CO2 emissions to limit global warming to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, will be limited.
5. It only includes international flights
Some of the steepest growth in aviation traffic has been on domestic routes, in countries such as the US, China and India. Yet only international flights are included in the agreement.
6. Isn’t carbon offsetting just buying a licence to pollute?
Some will argue that this scheme simply allows the industry to continue to pollute more, whilst paying to compensate elsewhere, and that any claim about ‘carbon neutral’ air transport is nonsense.
Now, if I fly, I do pay to offset emissions from my flights at an individual level, using quality certified schemes. But (as with individual offsetting) carbon offsetting at a commercial level should be seen as a last result, once the industry has done everything else it can to reduce its emissions. And the industry is a long way off having done everything it can!
It will also be essential that there is considerable scrutiny of the mechanisms, programmes and projects used, to ensure no double counting of savings and no unintended consequences.
7. What is meant by advances in the production and use of alternative fuels?
The scheme is intended to complement measures already being taken to reduce emissions from international aviation. These include technical and operational improvements (such as more efficient planes and more direct routes) and advances in the production and use of alternative fuels (which basically means biofuels). But campaign groups such as Friends of the Earth have warned of the social and environmental risks associated with increased biofuel use.
FoE claim that biofuel production can lead to deforestation, food price rises, hunger, poverty, and biodiversity loss. Biofuels may even produce more greenhouse gas emissions than the fossil fuels they replace.
It remains to be seen what impact the Aviation Carbon Reduction scheme will have, and it could be seen as a step in the right direction. But the aviation industry could (and should) be doing more to tackle this issue. In the meantime, the onus falls on us all to question whether we really need to take that flight…