EU must not blindly sign up to a weak aviation carbon market

As countries negotiate rules for offsetting airline emissions in Montreal, Brussels should reserve its right to impose stronger regional policies

The aviation industry has agreed to offset emissions growth from 2020 (Pic: Flickr/Mercedes Dayanara)

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The future of the aviation sector’s impact on the climate is a hot topic on both sides of the Atlantic this week.

In Montreal, countries are negotiating the design of a global carbon market for airlines at the International Civil Aviation Organization (Icao). In the European Union, member states are battling over whether or not to relinquish their power to regulate aviation emissions to make space for the global system. Both decisions are critical to the environmental integrity of efforts to decarbonise flying.

The Icao rules, being developed in secrecy, will include eligibility criteria for carbon credits to be used in the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (Corsia) to offset emissions growth above their 2020 levels. The biggest existing mechanisms and programs will want their share of the pie, and the risk of relying on flawed programmes to artificially tackle the aviation’s growing carbon problem is real and worrying.

At the top of the list is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a controversial market created under the Kyoto Protocol with a potential supply of credits so large that it could meet the entire demand of Corsia without implementing new projects after 2020. In an open letter sent at the start of the Council session, over 60 civil society organizations asked Icao Council members to not make CDM credits eligible for compliance under Corsia, which starts with the adoption of robust Emissions Unit Criteria (EUC).

The CDM’s performance to date has been underwhelming to say the least. Only 2% of the projects registered under the mechanism are highly likely to generate emission reductions which are not overestimated and would not have happened in the absence of the system. Relying on the CDM to offset the growth in aviation emissions could end up having no impact on overall greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere, or even increase it.

Airlines eye massive carbon handout

In parallel to these global negotiations, the EU has been entangled in a heated debate surrounding how it will respond to this new international market.

Icao member countries face a 1 December deadline to register any differences between their own legislation and the rules which would be implemented under Corsia. In the absence of this, EU countries would consent to replacing any existing regulation with Corsia, without knowing what the exact rules of the market will be.

The EU emissions trading system (ETS) currently covers all flights inside the European Economic Area and has seen a recent price rise following a newly adopted revision of the market. By setting a cap on emissions, the EU ETS prevents uncontrolled growth in pollution from the aviation sector, something Corsia will not regulate.

Replacing the EU ETS with Corsia would therefore significantly water down the ambition of EU climate policy, and could create a gap of 96.2 Mt CO2e in the EU’s 2030 climate target. EU member states will therefore need to support the European Commission’s proposal to “file a difference”, that is to notify Icao of the differences between EU legislation and Corsia rules, if they want to avoid surrendering their own power to regulate aviation emissions.

This is a crucial time for aviation. A lack of ambition on both sides of the Atlantic would lead to the establishment of a scheme with no real impact on the climate, and the dismantlement of any other policy which could have complemented it.

These developments show that many aspects of the Corsia will need to be scrutinized by civil society, researchers, and journalists, for which much improved transparency rules will be needed. Negotiations at Icao have been marred by opaque processes and no public engagement. EU member states should therefore promote ambition in the Icao Council, and wait before they agree to implement a scheme for which rules have not yet been determined.

Gilles Dufrasne is a policy researcher at Carbon Market Watch

Andrew Murphy is an aviation campaigner at Transport & Environment

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