The United Nations’ official aviation body begins three weeks of talks this week. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) council meeting will discuss all manner of aviation-related topics, from coronavirus to unannounced missile launches. But it is also set to make a decision on which carbon offsets it will permit in its scheme to combat the climate crisis, due to begin in a voluntary phase in 2021.
Its decision on which offset credits to allow could throw an already fraught dispute on global carbon markets into disarray. In December, UN climate talks broke down after countries failed yet again to agree on global carbon market rules. A decision on which offsets would be allowed to be traded was one of the major tension points. Now, the aviation industry could scramble efforts completely and wreck the climate in the process if it agrees to accept some of the most watered down credits as part of its offset program.
Known as Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), ICAO’s plan aims to ensure any rise in emissions from 2020 levels onwards are offset elsewhere through a market that sells allowances. More than 190 countries agreed in 2016 to a plan for “carbon neutral growth” in the aviation industry. But the plan has already been criticized for allowing the industry to buy its way out of cutting its own emissions during a crucial decade.
Aviation accounts for around 2.4 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, putting it on par with the emissions of Germany. However, it contributes to approximately 5 percent of global warming due to the additional effects of emissions other than carbon dioxide such as contrails. One quarter of the sector’s emissions come from the U.S.
And the climate impacts of aviation are growing fast: its carbon dioxide emissions rose by 32 percent from 2013 to 2018 and are on track to at least triple by 2050. That makes the industry a huge problem in a world that needs to rapidly drawdown carbon pollution in the coming decades.
Despite that, ICAO talks are separate from the annual UN climate talks, and international aviation is often described as having been “left out” of the Paris Agreement. But action is obviously required in the sector to meet the global temperature goals of the Paris Agreement. ICAO—which had been tasked with developing a climate strategy for decades—at last agreed on CORSIA in 2016. But the scheme is highly problematic for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, CORSIA won’t actually cut aviation emissions at all. It would only offset the growth of aviation emissions from 2020 onward, and the policy is only currently set to run until 2035. Baseline emissions will continue completely unregulated. It will therefore only cover 6 percent of projected carbon dioxide emissions from international aviation between 2015 and 2050, according to International Council on Clean Transportation data.
Meanwhile, ICAO has also repeatedly failed to set any kind of long term emissions reduction goal. The group pushed making a decision on this last year to at least 2022, and it is not clear what target ICAO may set even if it is passed.
“Our view is that ICAO hasn’t kept up to date with what was needed and so as a result, they should be discarded as a regulator of aviation emissions,” Andrew Murphy, manager of aviation at the non-profit Transport and Environment, told Earther.
Even for the small amount of emissions CORSIA will cover, the carbon offset scheme rests on a foundation with major cracks. In theory at least, offset credits work by letting a country (or airline, in this case) that emits carbon pay someone else to not emit that same amount of carbon. Another option allows carbon polluters to pay for projects like reforestation that actively absorb the equivalent carbon from the atmosphere.
While it sounds straightforward, actual metrics show success is hard to gauge. One study commissioned by the European Commission, for example, found that 85 percent of the offset projects used by the EU under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) failed to lead to any extra emissions reductions. There have also been serious concerns over human rights and protections for local communities from some projects used to generate offset credits.
Despite these pitfalls, the 2015 Paris Agreement established a new global carbon market that would allow countries to purchase offsets to help meet their climate goals. Countries have repeatedly failed to agree on how this process should work in practice, though, most recently when carbon market talks fell through at the COP25 UN climate talks last December.
One of the main sticking points there was the use of CDM offsets the European Commission found were such a failure. The CDM and the credits tied to it are the vestiges of a 1997 climate agreement known as the Kyoto Protocol. Countries like Australia, Brazil and India have a lot of these old, cheap credits and are pushing to be able to use them in the new system. But other countries are concerned these would undermine the system by flooding it with bogus credits that don’t actually represent emissions reductions.
Countries ended up gridlocked about whether to include these credits at COP25 negotiations, but they could still find a second life. CDM credits are one of 14 offset schemes which have applied to be registered under another carbon market mechanism: CORSIA.
Other applicants to join CORSIA include the American Carbon Registry and China’s Voluntary Emission Reduction Program. A study released last year found none of the 14 applicant schemes meet ICAO’s own criteria for acceptance.
“Some are not even programs, they are just project developers or they sell credits, but they don’t set the rules of what quality their credits should be,” Gilles Dufrasne, policy officer from Carbon Market Watch, told Earther by phone while referring to some of the schemes as “very low quality.”
Yet the organization is stills likely to adopt some of these schemes. The decision on which of these 14 offset schemes will be accepted under CORSIA is expected at this month’s council session. Some of the experts on the advisory body making recommendations to ICAO have close connections to the CDM. One, for example, is an alternate member of the CDM’s executive board.
Last month, a group of nonprofits, including Carbon Market Watch, released a letter urging the council to reject bad quality offsets and ensure no emissions that are double counted by the country selling the offset and again by country or entity buying the reductions. Double counting was another major point of contention at the UN climate talks, with Brazil continuing to push for rules to allow it, therefore lax rules on this in CORSIA would have major global implications.
“We worked so hard to get a prohibition on double counting enshrined in the Paris Agreement, it appears multiple times in the Paris Agreement,” Annie Petsonk from the Environmental Defense Fund, a signatory of the letter, told Earther. “And so we have to be sure that CORSIA does not undo that gain.”
The letter also said “an overwhelming majority” of CDM credits lack environmental credibility and urged ICAO to only accept new credits generated after 2020.
“A decision to throw open the floodgates of the CDM and allow all those old tonnes to flow into CORSIA and to keep flowing after 2020 would undermine the integrity of both the framework convention, the Paris Agreement framework convention, and CORSIA,” said Petsonk.
This week, Reuters reported it had seen a leaked document which showed six of the 14 programs, including the CDM, are being recommended by the CORSIA advisory body. However, in all cases projects issued before 2016 would be excluded, the document leaked to Reuters said. Setting such a 2016 cut off date would address the biggest concerns over the millions of older, pre-2016 credits, although watchdog groups like Carbon Market Watch still think no CDM credits should be permitted.
The ICAO council gathering this month will now need to make a decision whether or not to accept this recommendation. One thing that could complicate this is China’s steady insistence that it wants to set its own list of eligible offsets.
CORSIA is also expected to be the largest initial market for the new global carbon market outlined in the Paris Agreement (whenever countries finally agree to that, of course). This means a decision to accept CDM credits at ICAO could undermine any decision countries make about stronger global carbon market rules.
“If you can buy CDM credits for 25 cents, then basically there’s no point in setting up another better system because nobody’s going to buy those credits,” says Dufrasne. “Presumably, they’re going to be more expensive. And so airlines will rely on the cheaper ones.”
If ICAO accepts carbon market credits that many countries see as unacceptable under the Paris Agreement, it could also send a strong negative signal to future climate talks. Dufrasne noted it would be “politically more difficult” to keep CDM credits out of the the Paris Agreement’s carbon market mechanism.
While at UN climate talks, discord and decision play out in the open, transparency at ICAO is very different. At the annual climate talks, thousands of accredited activists and non-profit representatives mingle amongst diplomats, and sanctioned protests are held inside the venue. ICAO council sessions, meanwhile, consist of 36 representatives from governments, each of whom are allowed to bring one invited guest, with no other observers present.
ICAO’s assembly sessions, which happen every three years, have shown some signs of opening up, with the latest session last year livestreamed for the first time. But the council sessions this month are beginning with little fanfare and with no splashy web presence like the other UN climate talks. Only the biggest of aviation nerds know they are even happening. Non-profits also face an uphill struggle to get a hold of documents at ICAO. Some documents are never made public, while others are available only for those able to pay. For one recent meeting held more or less in secret by another of ICAO’s environmental bodies, the official summary cost $452.
“It’s easier for countries to negotiate at ICAO and to get a deal that’s less robust on the environment and climate side, because you just don’t have that same level of scrutiny,” said Dufrasne. “I mean, actually, you have basically no scrutiny at ICAO, it’s really really hard to know what is going on.”
Every year the global spotlight rightly focuses on the UN climate talks, where outcomes crucial to the planet’s future are held in the balance. But the truth is decisions with major consequences for the climate crisis are also being made in places like ICAO, only with far less scrutiny.
To ensure a global climate regime that truly addresses the vast emissions cuts needed in every sector, it’s time to bring ICAO’s decisions out in the open. More progressive countries are still pushing to set carbon market rules that at least address some of the concerns over using offsets to cut emissions: it’s crucial that ICAO does not set up a shoddy offset scheme that undercuts them.
Jocelyn is a freelance climate and science journalist from Scotland who loves to geek out on climate policy. She is currently based in Costa Rica. Follow her on Twitter.