Science

Airlines sign controversial deal to “offset” CO2 emissions

By Joshua Lee

The UN International Civil Aviation Organisations (ICAO) has struck a landmark agreement to cut carbon emissions from international aviation from 2020, although there is concern from environmental groups that the emissions deal may do little to cut the aviation industry’s contribution to man-made climate change.

The deal, announced last Thursday following years of negotiations, will not directly restrict CO2 emissions, but instead require airlines to offset any increases in carbon emissions from international cargo and passenger flights through a system of carbon credits. These are sold to airlines so that carbon emissions can be reduced elsewhere, such as through tree planting.

The scheme will become compulsory for all ICAO member-states in 2027, but dozens of countries have already agreed to join the program from 2020. These countries represent around 83 percent of international flight operations.

While Olumuyiwa Bernard Aliu, ICAO’s president, described the agreement as a “bold decision and an historic moment”, the deal was met with disappointment by environmental groups.

This offsetting proposal is seen as falling short of the initial goals set by the airline industry to have carbon-natural growth by 2020 and a 50% absolute reduction in aircraft carbon emissions by 2050. Clauses linking the deal to the goals in the Paris climate agreement to limit global warming to 1.5/2°C were also removed.

“Airline claims that flying will now be green are a myth” said Bill Hemmings, aviation director of the concern group Transport and Environment: “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.”

The offsetting scheme will use emissions levels in 2020 as a benchmark, meaning that emissions above 2020 levels will be offset until 2035. Overall about 80 percent of emissions above the benchmark will be offset, but this only accounts for 20% of total emissions, translating to roughly 2.5 billion tons of CO2.

There were also concerns about the lack of environmental safeguards in the report, with the potential for abuse through the purchasing of ‘risky credits’.

“The ICAO Assembly Resolution is missing clear references to sustainable development, strong international oversight and overall environmental integrity” said Kelsey Perlman, Policy Officer for Aviation and Land Use at Carbon Market Watch. The group described the deal as unclear, and called on ICAO to improve the agreement and ensure that the system is effective in combating climate change.

Bill Hemmings added: “Today 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.”

Air-travel accounts for 1.3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but nitrogen oxide and water vapour emissions from aircraft have a much larger impact on climate at high altitudes compared to at ground level. Aircraft carbon dioxide emissions are expected to quadruple by 2050, accounting for 22 percent of global CO2 emissions.

Photo credit: Rose Davies

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