The UN Just Made It Easier for Airlines to Pollute

A composite photo of planes taking off from Heathrow Airport over the course of an hour.
Photo: Dan Kitwood (Getty Images)

A United Nations council of 36 countries has agreed on a major change to the main global scheme addressing the climate impact of aviation, a move expected to remove requirements for airlines to offset emissions for several years.

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The change to weaken what was already viewed as a wholly inadequate climate policy has been met with dismay by climate experts. The aviation industry has long argued for a unified approach to regulating emissions at a global level rather than a patchwork of policies by regions and countries. Now, that argument looks weaker than ever with the new watered rules governing air travel emissions.

“It took ICAO [the International Civil Aviation Organization] almost 20 years to come up with recommendations on how to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation,” Dan Rutherford, director of aviation at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), told Earther. “By delaying those already weak policies, [the ICAO] council has given ammunition to countries that want to take more aggressive action.”

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ICAO governs the emissions from international flights and the place where, in 2016, 193 countries agreed to achieve “carbon neutral growth” from 2020. The scheme, known as CORSIA focuses on carbon offsets and has been heavily criticised for being far below the action needed for the industry’s ballooning emissions. This week’s decision to change the parameters of the scheme will make it even easier for airlines to pollute.

Air travel emissions were initially going to be regulated based on 2019 and 2020 totals, but the change takes 2020 out of the equation owing to the sharp pandemic-driven dip in air travel. Industry body IATA argued the change was needed since CORSIA would otherwise put an “inappropriate” economic burden on the sector. But since passenger demand is not expected to reach 2019 levels for three to five years, the decision effectively removes all offset obligations on airlines for at least three years. This means between 50 and 200 million tons of emissions won’t be offset, according to Rutherford.

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Environmental experts and non-profits who have been pushing for decades for stronger aviation climate measures at ICAO reacted with frustration to the change. In the end, the change could open the door to future regional or national action outside ICAO that are more stringent.

“At a time when there’s widespread public support for governments to deliver a green recovery from the pandemic, focused on increasing climate ambition, ICAO’s decision looks out of touch and leaves the door wide open for states to introduce national measures to demonstrate the required leadership and need for action,” Tim Johnson, director of non-profit the Aviation Environment Federation, told Earther.

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Stay Grounded campaigner Magdalena Heuwieser said the offset scheme was “a total wreck beyond repair” even before the baseline change. “In fact, it was broken from the very beginning,” she said in a statement, pointing out that CORSIA only covers a fraction of aviation’s projected emissions and “completely ignores” the huge climate impact of airplane emissions other than carbon pollution. “It relies on harmful offsets and biofuels, both neo-colonial measures that shift the problems to communities in the Global South,” she added.

The weakening of the scheme could lead to a renewed push to include international aviation in national climate plans, particularly in Europe, Chris Lyle, an air transport consultant who has previously worked at both ICAO and British Airways, told Earther. “While Europe has gone along [with the baseline change] with the notable exception of Sweden, the public pressure there for additional action will undoubtedly increase,” he said. “Any country can already add international aviation to its carbon budget, and indeed to its UN climate pledge.”

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The cross-border nature of international aviation and shipping complicates assigning emissions to individual countries, and responsibility for tackling aviation emissions instead in theory sits with ICAO. The industry has long argued only international action is feasible to avoid a complicated patchwork of different regulations. But the failure over the years to reach agreement on a strong climate deal at ICAO has led to rising calls for countries to take action themselves as part of their Paris Agreement climate pledges.

The EU already regulates intra-EU flights via its carbon emissions trading system and there are already a variety of further regional measures on the table. They include strengthening the carbon trading system, the introduction of a kerosene tax that would affect jet fuel and a mandate for sustainable aviation fuels. Even before the baseline change, these measures would likely have far more of an impact on emissions than CORSIA.

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Some countries have also begun to take individual action as well; France and Austria have both attached green conditions to bailouts for the sector. The growing flygskam (flight shame) movement, inspired by Greta Thunberg and others, has also popularized the idea of individual action to minimize flying.

“Emission cuts in aviation in line with the 1.5 degrees Celsius [2.7 degrees Fahrenheit] limit are only achievable by reducing flights since offsetting and technological approaches fail to do the job,” said Heuwieser. “This structural change of our mobility system has to go along with a just transition for the workers.”

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In the absence of national or international measures, pressure could also increase on airlines to address their ballooning carbon footprints themselves, Annie Petsonk, international counsel at EDF, told Earther.

“With the baseline change, it will be hard for airlines, during the next three years, to point to CORSIA as evidence that they’re addressing the carbon pollution of flights,” she said. “If airlines reach for substandard carbon credits that couldn’t make it through CORSIA’s eligibility screens, they’ll expose themselves to allegations of greenwashing right at the time when they’re trying hardest to woo customers back.”

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Gilles Dufrasne, at Carbon Market Watch, pointed out airlines have been pushing to weaken CORSIA while simultaneously receiving billions in bailouts from governments around the world. “Airlines are making a mockery of governments and taxpayers, taking public money while fighting climate policies,” he said in a statement.

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.

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