Regional action must be front and centre in efforts to cut aviation's climate impact

Regional action must be front and centre in efforts to cut aviation's climate impact | T&E

Tue 10 Jan 2017 – For too long, the debate about addressing aviation emissions has been reduced to regional versus global measures, with an assumption by many that global always trumps regional. Now the dust has settled on the 39th ICAO Assembly, we can see for the first time what a global measure can deliver, and the results are not as remotely encouraging for global action as many presumed, writes Andrew Murphy of Transport & Environment (T&E).


Research commissioned by T&E has found that environmental coverage of ICAO’s global market based measure (the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation – CORSIA) has the potential to deliver fewer emission reductions over its lifetime than the full inclusion of aviation emissions in a reformed EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS).


Even if the geographic scope of the EU ETS is restricted to cover only flights within Europe and half of the emissions from flights to and from Europe, CORSIA barely edges out the EU ETS over its 2021-2035 lifetime. And all this presumes CORSIA will include effective enforcement and airtight offset rules – which is far from certain.


What makes these findings so important is that Europe took most of its aviation emissions out of the EU ETS for at least five years in order to facilitate an ICAO outcome, and may extend this exclusion for another four years while ICAO preparations continue – making a total of nine years of delay, all to facilitate a global measure which has the potential to deliver even less ambition than Europe acting regionally.


What explains this result? The simple reason is that the EU ETS is far more environmentally ambitious than ICAO’s CORSIA, with a reformed EU ETS delivering a declining cap from 2004-2006 emissions while CORSIA fails to deliver even the promised stabilising of emissions at 2020 levels. This of course isn’t so surprising – the EU is a major emitter, responsible for 18% of all global aviation emissions, and it’s appropriate that along with other major emitters like North America, it adopts more ambitious policies. ICAO’s remit, as in areas such as safety and security, is to establish global minimum – or lowest common denominator – standards.


European policy-makers should read the T&E report in full. The current European Commission has bought into the industry line that global is automatically better, and that European climate action can be suborned entirely to ICAO (and IMO for shipping) for climate action. Its transport decarbonisation paper, released last summer, is a classic example of this flawed thinking. While it proposed quite ambitious action for other transport modes, both shipping and aviation were outsourced to the lowest common denominator approaches at IMO and ICAO, directly contradicting the Kyoto and Paris requirements that developed countries can and must do more.


It’s clear that CORSIA falls well short of the ambition required by the Paris Agreement and resistance will remain strong within ICAO to do much more, given the fragility of the whole deal as it is today.


Encouraging greater efficiency is essential, but CORSIA won't deliver this. CORSIA’s low level of ambition and the chronically low price of offsets, which industry and many in ICAO are striving to perpetuate, will provide no incentive for airlines to deliver in-sector emission reductions. Quite the contrary, ultra-low offset costs can easily be passed on to customers, effectively neutralising environmental risk for the industry. ICAO’s failed efforts last year to agree a CO2 standard that would have any impact on efficiency of future aircraft is further strong evidence, were it needed, that the airline industry has neatly positioned ICAO where it wants it to be.


The report rehabilitates the necessity of regional ambition, which has endured almost a decade of sustained attack by industry and their compliant transport ministries. We can now toss out the myth that we have to choose between global and regional action – neither alone will deliver the ambition required. And with ICAO’s Assembly resolution endorsing developed countries taking the lead, the path is open to regional ambition like never before.


European policy-makers should not delay anymore – the EU ETS must be strengthened and defended. The full scope snap-back now in force should apply at least until 2021 when voluntary offsetting by carriers is set to start to operate. For flights within Europe, CORSIA should never apply as it would cut the emission reductions the EU ETS could achieve by three-quarters. In addition, reliance on offsets for aviation would undermine Europe’s decision that as from 2021 economy-wide emission reductions must be delivered within Europe.


Industry lobbying for global over regional is now exposed for what it is – not an effort at greater ambition but an attempt to weasel out of climate action. Industry should drop its hysterics about a ‘patchwork of measures’. The map of CORSIA participating countries is the ultimate patchwork. Instead it should accept that only global and regional measures, working in tandem, can deliver the ambition needed. And European policy-makers should accept they have a responsibility to ensure Europe leads on climate ambition in all sectors, and not try to outsource the job to ICAO.




The author, Andrew Murphy, is a policy officer with Brussels-based NGO Transport & Environment (T&E).



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