By Robert McLachlan
On 27 September, Greta Thunberg addressed a crowd of 500,000 at the School Strike for Climate in Montreal, saying,
“You are a nation that is allegedly a climate leader. And Sweden is also a nation that is allegedly a climate leader. And in both cases, it means absolutely nothing. Because in both cases, it’s just empty words. And the politics needed are still nowhere in sight. So we are basically the same.”
Meanwhile, also in Montreal, just a few kilometres away, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO, part of the United Nations) was also talking about climate change, speaking the language of international diplomacy:
“Whereas the sustainable growth of aviation is important for future economic growth and development, trade and commerce, cultural exchange and understanding among peoples and nations; therefore prompt action must be taken to ensure that it is compatible with the quality of the environment and develops in ways that alleviate adverse impacts…”
ICAO and Greta Thunberg. Which of those two will have the most impact?
The stakes at the ICAO meeting were high. The main UN body for dealing with climate change, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, which resulted in the Paris Agreement), has so far left dealing with international aviation up to ICAO, which is keen to defend its turf. But aviation is growing rapidly, up 80% since 2009, and is projected to triple further by 2050. In response, after the Paris Agreement, in 2016 ICAO developed its flagship scheme for addressing the climate impact of aviation: the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA.
CORSIA is intended to cap international aviation emissions at 2020 levels. It runs until 2035. Participation is voluntary until 2026, although many countries, including New Zealand, will join in 2021. The New Zealand Cabinet recently approved the development of legislation to allow CORSIA to operate in New Zealand (although not as part of the Emissions Trading Scheme). However, for a sector of such importance, and a scheme that starts on 1 January 2021, time is running out.
For the details are still scarce, and ICAO is still trying to work out how CORSIA will operate. The main part of the plan involves the purchase of carbon offsets – that is, the purchase of emissions reductions elsewhere. Now, carbon offsetting is not intrinsically flawed. New Zealand’s emissions trading scheme is essentially based on carbon offsetting – people who burn fossil fuels pay a fee, which both acts as an incentive to stop doing it, and provides money to someone else who may be, for example, planting trees.
The devil is in the details. New Zealand has already been caught in one international carbon credit scandal, in which many large New Zealand emitters bought dodgy credits from Ukraine at rock-bottom prices (for by that time, they were the only buyers in the market). This led to a suspension on the use of international credits in New Zealand, although it still remains part of our long-term plan.
For the system to work, the purchase of carbon credits must lead to genuine emissions reductions that would not have happened anyway. However, a recent assessment for the German Environment Agency found that 80% of registered carbon credits do not meet this standard. For example, they may relate to projects such as wind farms that have already been built, and that will continue to operate regardless of whether they can sell their carbon credits. In addition, many credits arise in countries that have plans to reduce emissions already in place. In that case, it’s very hard to tell if the credits are actually leading to extra emissions reductions. Finally, there is a problem of double counting. If a plane flies from Auckland to Singapore, with some of the emissions offset in Vanuatu, the offsets cannot be counted both in New Zealand and Vanuatu.
A likely scenario involves a vast oversupply of carbon credits, with a corresponding crash in prices. Indeed, EasyJet announced recently that it will offset all the emissions of its flights, at just $6 per tonne of CO2 – a tiny fraction of the current carbon price in Europe. At those prices, offsetting a return flight from Auckland to Brisbane would cost $2.
CORSIA is also likely to have an impact on biofuels. Already in 2017, ICAO, under pressure from Brazil and the US, almost entirely removed sustainability criteria from the jet biofuels that can be used under the scheme. In 2018, at Saudi Arabia’s request, fossil kerosene from ‘clean’ oil refineries was also credited. An environmental organisation, Biofuel Watch, claims that the Finnish company Neste is planning to make biofuel in Singapore from palm oil, a claim the company disputes (although does not entirely deny).
With CORSIA starting operation in New Zealand in just over a year, we don’t know yet where its carbon credits will come from. So far, ICAO is reserving all rights to operate and verify the system.
For all these reasons, many environmentalists are sceptical that CORSIA will deliver any environmental benefits at all. They are joined by the EU, which had originally planned to include all aviation in its emissions trading scheme in 2012. Following intense lobbying, this has been delayed to 2024 for extra-EU flights. ICAO doesn’t even much like the EU charging a carbon fee on internal flights in the EU (which are, after all, international). In September it passed a resolution stating that CORSIA “should be the only market-based measure applied to international flights”.
ICAO also “urges States to refrain from environmental measures that would adversely affect the orderly and sustainable development of international civil aviation” – in other words, not to tax on jet fuel, a move which is also presently being considered by the EU.
The problem is growth
To limit global warming to 1.5ºC, as New Zealand has agreed to aim for, emissions from burning fossil fuels need to fall 45% by 2030. (For 2ºC, we get an extra six years). As Manchester Metropolitan University’s David Lee concluded in a report to the UK Department of Transport,
“achieving a 1.5°C target will become irreconcilable with any continued fossil fuel usage by aviation at some point around the middle of the present century… Since aviation’s current goals are inconsistent with the Paris Agreement, in the absence of additional measures, then more ambitious goals should be set.”
Tufts University’s Parke Wilde, founder of the blog Flying Less, wrote to ICAO that
“What really is needed from ICAO and CORSIA is actual emissions reductions within the aviation sector. It is a travesty that ICAO only provides overall goals for emissions “net” of offsets, and will not state goals for actual emissions reduction in the aviation sector.”
(For these and similar statements, ICAO recently blocked Parke Wilde on Twitter.)
But all major institutions associated with aviation are devoted to, and designed around, support for continued growth, which is currently running at 5% per year. In New Zealand, international aviation emissions grew 33% in the past three years. Our government, like most others, spends money supporting the growth of tourism, for example by advertising New Zealand in Europe (the furthest destination of all), and paying $100,000 for Stephen Colbert to joke around with the Prime Minister.
Apart from ICAO, other parts of the UN, such as the UN World Tourist Organisation, also support growth. The UNWTO’s goal is to “promote tourism as a driver of economic growth”. The World Tourism and Travel Council, an industry body, supports growth. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) supports growth, and in fact worked closely with ICAO in the development of CORSIA. The two organisations can be hard to tell apart, with many of ICAO’s resolutions supporting IATA’s calls for states to do more to support demand growth, for example by supporting airport expansion.
The larger aviation and tourism gets – it may already be up to 10% of the global economy – the harder it is for policymakers to control.
For all these reasons, Susanne Becken, Professor of Tourism at Griffiths University in Queensland, recently concluded that “only systemic changes at a large scale will be sufficient to break or disrupt existing arrangements.”
Prior to this year’s meeting, ICAO has always resisted calls to set targets to actually reduce emissions. After a lot of wrangling, they have now finally agreed “to continue to explore the feasibility of a long-term global aspirational goal for international aviation” for their next meeting in 2022. In the meantime, the only people actually calling for a reduction in emissions are the No Fly and Fly-Less movements and a scattering of environmental organisations. And Greta Thunberg.