Global aviation climate deal agreed: ‘Mission accomplished’ or ‘timid step’ forward?

Representatives from 191 nations finally pieced together a global deal to introduce a carbon offset scheme for the aviation sector in Montreal last night (6 October), although the agreement has been acknowledged as a "timid step in the right direction" by green groups.

The aviation deal was struck at the 39th Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and marks the world’s first carbon offsetting scheme across a global sector. Despite those involved in establishing the deal – including the UK’s aviation minister Lord Ahmad – heralding the offsetting scheme as an “unprecedented step”, many organisations were hoping to see more ambitious targets introduced.

While the ICAO’s president Olumuyiwa Bernard Aliu claimed that the accord was a “bold decision and an historic moment”, industry reaction has labelled the deal as a “weak start”. Transport & Environment (T&E) claims that the deal will fall “well short” of the carbon neutral growth target for 2020, and that the deal presents a risk to environmental effectiveness due to a lack of rules in regards to the offsetting system.

T&E’s 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.”

“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.”

T&E noted that nations agreed to a last-minute decision to drop plans of aligning ICAO policies with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5/2C pathway. With the aviation deal being agreed just days after the ratification threshold of the Paris deal was crossed, groups are calling on the ICAO to introduce incremental steps to improve the aviation scheme in line with global needs.

Both the aviation and maritime sectors were inexplicitly left out of the negotiations at COP21, and while the new accord sets targets for the sector, emissions could still skyrocket without more stringent goals. National contributions formed as part of the Paris Agreement are unlikely to push the world towards the recommended 2C pathway and green groups were hoping that an ambitious deal in the aviation sector would help mobilise climate action beyond the pledges made in Paris.

UK’s massive burden

While T&E has called on the industry to strengthen additional measures, such as the European Union’s Emissions Trading System (ETS), to promote climate resiliency, Greenpeace has claimed that the global deal will impact UK industries. The group’s chief scientist Dr Doug Parr warned that any decision over a third runway expansion at either Heathrow or Gatwick would not only have to comply with climate agreements but also ensure that “massive burdens” aren’t placed on sectors and the economy.

“This agreement is a timid step in the right direction when we need to be sprinting,” Parr said. “The aviation industry has managed to get away for years with doing nothing about its growing carbon emission problem, and now it’s giving itself even more years to do very little. Aside from only covering just around half of aviation’s climate impact, it allows this industry to increase its CO2 emissions even more by shrinking the budget available to other vital sectors of the economy like power, heavy industry or surface transport.

“Far from clearing the way for a decision to go ahead with a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick, the ICAO’s plan actually thrusts the problem back into UK government’s hands. Ministers will need to explain how expansion can be made compatible with the Climate Change Act without imposing massive burdens on other sectors of the economy. Nothing said or done by the Airports Commission or Government suggests it can do so.”

The UK’s involvement in using the ETS has already stung presidential candidate Donald Trump with a hefty fine for UK-based flights, and aviation minister Lord Ahmad believes that the deal established in Montreal “sends a clear message” as to how aviation will play a role in combatting climate change.

“This is an unprecedented deal, the first of its kind for any sector,” Ahmad said. “International aviation is responsible for putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year than the whole of the UK and yet until now, there has been no global consensus on how to address the growing problem of aviation emissions.

“For years, the UK has pushed to tackle aviation emissions globally. Now, 191 countries have agreed on a global measure and sent a clear message that aviation will play its part in combating climate change.”

Volunteers wanted

The UK was a part of the Bratislava Declaration which announced on 3 September that 44 members of the European Conference on Civil Aviation would implement the scheme “from the start”. In total, more than a third of the 191 nations, including the UK, have volunteered to join the offsetting scheme once it has been introduced.

Commenting on the announcement the Air Transport Action Group’s (ATAG) executive director Michael Gill said: “What was a visionary approach seven years ago has today become a reality. We thank the government negotiators who have worked so hard to deliver a scheme which will successfully balance the growth in air transport and all of the economic and social connectivity benefits that it brings, with the need to address CO2 emissions from the sector.”

“In addition, 65 States have already volunteered to join the carbon offsetting and reduction scheme for international aviation (CORSIA) from its outset in 2021. This means that over 80% of the total growth in aviation CO2 after 2020 will now be covered and, indeed, this may increase as more States choose to join the scheme. Despite some reservations over the scheme being voluntary in its initial years, the support of all these States – large, small, developed and developing – shows the commitment of the international community working through ICAO to deliver a robust measure.”

With nations now working to mobilise the offsetting scheme, the private sector will continue to trial innovative new measures to reduce emissions. In recent months, airlines such as FedEx, Airbus and Boeing have all introduced schemes to improve energy efficiency in-flight, with concepts covering biofuel, hybrid planes and shortened wingspans all introduced.

Virgin Atlantic has been one of the airlines at the vanguard of testing low-carbon fuel options. Last month it announced that an innovative partnership with carbon capture company LanzaTech had successfully produced 1,500 gallons of low-carbon, alcohol-to-jet (AtJ) fuel.

Matt Mace

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