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Civil aviation’s climate change plan: fiddling while Rome burns

15 março 2016

After the majority of the world’s countries signed a global agreement to hold the increase in global temperatures to well below 2 degrees, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has made a proposal to achieve Carbon Neutral Growth by 2020 which will see it increasing emissions by up to 700 per cent by 2050  and ‘offsetting’ them through a Global Market-Based Mechanism (GMBM) , a plan the organisation will vote on in September2016.

To propose such a trade-off is dangerous: The GMBM would need offsets equivalent to at least 1GT of CO2 – more than Germany and France’s current emissions combined – to compensate for the airline industry’s growing climate impact.

Trees have long been seen as a source of cheap and attractive offsets, and there is a clear interest in allowing forests to be used as offsets by the aviation industry. However, sizeable and often insurmountable technical obstacles stand in the way.

To begin, ICAO’s standards preclude double-counting of offset credits, particularly difficult where forests are concerned as these are typically already included in national greenhouse gas balance sheets, since most countries have submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions that include their forest sector.

ICAO also specifies that credits must be calculated against a realistic baseline, proving that offsets are additional to what would have happened without this additional financing, and ensuring that those offsets are permanent. This last criteria is impossible to prove in the case of forest carbon offsets, given that trees are temporary stores of carbon, as acknowledged even by the Clean Development Mechanism, which created a category of temporary offsets that expire after a certain time, requiring the purchaser to buy more offsets.

ICAO standards also require that offsets ‘do no harm’. Given the countless stories of social conflict due to people being denied access to their land and restricting their traditional use of forests, airlines must think twice about the likely damage to communities – and hence their reputation.

While the aviation industry dithers, the pace of climate change quickens. With only six years leftuntil our cumulative emissions put the 1.5-degree temperature target out of reach, we no longer have the luxury to choose between reducing emissions and paying someone else to do it for us. Both are needed if we want any chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees.

The GMBM is to be voted on at the next ICAO assembly, from 27 September to 7 October 2016. A number of EU Member States - including Portugal, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Poland and Spain - are ICAO council members, with the Netherlands and Sweden sitting on the Environment Committee. Although the EU has only observer status in the ICAO, it must decide whether to maintain EU rules to cap aviation emissions – a measure they have  suspended until the end of 2016.

Despite the ICAO proposal to increase emissions, the EU must forge ahead with plans to curb emissions from this sector. With almost 800 planned airport projects in Europe, action cannot come soon enough. The environmental movements active at these sites, e.g., at Heathrow, UK, and Notre Dame des Landes, France, play a crucial role in challenging governments that sign global climate agreements and then fail to regulate their most polluting industries.

Images: top: Sydney airport by Simon Clancy via Flickr;

bottom: protests at Notre Dames des Landes by Lorelei Limousin

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