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Here's Why People Are Worried About the Aviation Industry's Plans to Cut Emissions

Airlines are pushing for a global carbon market, but environmentalists say it won't be enough to prevent uncontrolled growth in aviation emissions.
A pilot checks the RX1E-A, a two-seater aircraft designed by Shenyang Aerospace University, at Caihu Airport in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, China, on November 1st, 2017.

A pilot checks the RX1E-A, a two-seater aircraft designed by Shenyang Aerospace University, at Caihu Airport in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, China, on November 1st, 2017. 

The COP 24 global climate talks begin next week in Katowice, Poland, but at the headquarters of the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal, Canada, delegates from around the world have already been busy negotiating the details of a global carbon market specifically for airlines during a three-week ICAO council session.

Now, the member states of ICAO, the United Nations agency charged with regulating the aviation industry, must decide whether or not to replace domestic emissions regulations for flights with ICAO's market. But environmental groups say that the global market could have little to no effect on the sector's emissions—or, worse, allow those emissions to keep climbing.

Aviation accounts for as much as 2 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, and, as nations around the world rein in their use of fossil fuels, it will consume a larger and larger portion of the global carbon budget: By 2050, it could account for as much as 5 percent of global emissions, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Several nations have implemented limits on emissions from domestic flights as part of efforts to cut their carbon footprints, but it's harder to attribute emissions from international air travel to any one country; that's at least in part why the industry was left out of the Paris Agreement. It's also why countries around the world, including the United States, often take cues from the ICAO for issues with international implications, usually to great effect. The "ICAO has a long and successful history on safety and security," says Bill Hemmings, an aviation and shipping policy specialist at Transport & Environment, an environmental organization. "It's far safer now to take an aircraft than to cross a street almost. Their problem is that the environment is a different animal."

In 2016, the ICAO announced plans for a global carbon market, known as the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, that would, in theory, allow airlines to offset emissions increases after 2020 by buying carbon credits. Since then, the ICAO's member states, industry representatives, and non-governmental organizations focused on transport have engaged in intense negotiations to hammer out the details of the market, including how airlines measure and report emissions, and what kind of carbon credits the market will allow. But it's unclear how much progress has been made in the two years since the U.N. agency announced CORSIA.

"One of the issues is that there is a huge lack of transparency," says Gilles Dufrasne, a policy officer with Carbon Market Watch. Since the ICAO's latest council session ended earlier this month, there's been no official report or communication of what decisions were reached in Montreal. "What is most likely," Dufrasne says, "is that even after two years of discussions, there is still no agreement on the eligibility criteria for [carbon credits]."

Those criteria could make or break the market, because not all carbon credits are created equal. Take forest credits, in which a plot of trees is planted or protected to suck up an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere: Trees have a limited lifespan, which means eventually that carbon dioxide will make its way back into the atmosphere (and that can happen a lot sooner than companies or countries intend, thanks to a heightened risk of drought, fire, and other climate-change induced disasters).

"You risk having double emissions—from the fossil fuel that this airline company or whoever emitted, and they paid for a forest that the year after burned," Nils Hermann Ranum, the head of policy and campaigns at Rainforest Foundation Norway, told Pacific Standard in 2016.

If an oil company becomes more energy efficient (say, by installing solar panels on an oil field) and sells those emissions savings on a carbon market, the buyer is effectively subsidizing fossil fuels. And even if the ICAO's market doesn't include any questionable credits, it could still undercut the Paris Agreement goals if the system doesn't include a mechanism to prevent double counting. As Pacific Standard previously reported:

The Paris Agreement includes a strong provision that carbon credits should not be double-counted. In other words, countries that sell carbon credits cannot also count those reductions toward their climate goals. That provision, however, only applies to parties. So, in practice, any country could sell a carbon credit to an airline, and then count those emissions reductions toward its own reduction target—all without that country ("party") being guilty, technically, of double counting.

While the ICAO sent a set of "standards and recommended practices" for CORSIA to its member states over the summer, they have yet to be approved by the agency's member states—and the agency is running out of time. Airlines need to begin monitoring emissions in 2019 in order to establish a 2020 baseline so that the ICAO market can launch in 2021. After the initial pilot phase, CORSIA will be a voluntary program for ICAO members until 2027, when participation in the market will become mandatory.

The European Union, meanwhile, has its own Emissions Trading System. Launched in 2005, the E.U.'s cap-and-trade system, which today covers power stations, industrial plants, airlines, and other energy-heavy industries in 31 countries, was the first international carbon trading scheme in the world. ICAO member states have until December 1st to file any differences between their domestic legislation regulating airline emissions and the ICAO's proposed rules. In other words, ICAO members, including the E.U.'s member states currently subject to the ETS, have to decide whether or not to embrace the ICAO's carbon market—without knowing exactly what it will look like.

"There is a great worry from the industry that if we don't have a global system, airlines will be faced with a patchwork of measures, so they are lobbying very hard for existing rules to be abolished and replaced by CORSIA," Dufrasne says. "But it's a bit difficult to negotiate the implementation of a system for which we don't know the rules, so the lack of transparency is really striking and unlike any other U.N. agency."

One thing that's all but certain is that CORSIA will not be as effective as the ETS. An analysis by Transport & Environment found that, "if, as industry is pressing for, CORSIA is the only measure that applies in the future to address aviation emissions, Europe will fall short of its 2030 emissions target by almost 100 [million metric tons]."

That's because, rather than reducing total emissions, the ICAO's carbon market is being built only to offset increases in emissions after 2020—which means that aviation emissions can keep climbing until and well beyond that year, as long as airlines are buying carbon credits. And that's bad news for everyone. "Uncontrolled growth in aviation is not compatible with our commitments under the Paris Agreement," says Dufrasne, who called CORSIA nothing more than "an accounting trick to meet a target on paper that doesn't change anything in the atmosphere."