ICAO’s carbon offset plan for aviation is a threat to Paris Agreement

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The aviation industry wants to reduce its dependence on fossil fuel partly to reduce its impact on the environment. [Photo by Timothy Spence]

The aviation industry wants to reduce its dependence on fossil fuel partly to reduce its impact on the environment. [Timothy Spence]

Forests have long been seen as a potential source of cheap and attractive offsets to compensate for the airline industry’s growing climate impact. However, there is one flaw. They don’t work, even by the ICAO’s own standards, writes Hannah Mowat.

Hannah Mowat is a campaigner at FERN, an NGO that keeps track of the European Union’s involvement in forest policy.

The UN deal to limit global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius was greeted with much fanfare around the world. After tortuous negotiations involving 195 nations the Paris Agreement, struck in December last year, was seen as a landmark in the fight against climate change.

Yet one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions was exempt from the agreement.

Greenhouse gas emissions from aviation almost doubled between 1990 and 2006. And this is not set to change, with almost 800 planned airport projects in Europe alone. If the global aviation sector were a country, it would be the world’s seventh largest emitter, though less than 7% of the world fly.

This week, the General Assembly of the UN’s International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) gathers in Montreal to vote on its proposal for tackling these emissions. Disturbingly, their plan allows for almost unlimited growth in the aviation sector.

The measures the ICAO is putting forward would enable the aviation sector to increase its emissions by up to 700% by 2050, and ‘offset’ them through a Global Market Based Mechanism (GMBM).

The dangers are obvious.

The GMBM would need offsets equivalent to at least 3,300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide just between 2021 and 2035 to compensate for the airline industry’s growing climate impact. To put this into perspective, aggregate offset demand in the EU Emissions Trading System has been estimated at around 1,650 million tonnes of carbon dioxide between 2008 and 2020.

Trees have long been seen as a source of cheap and attractive offsets, and a handful of conservation organisations are touting forests as a good source for them. However, there is one flaw. They don’t work, even by the ICAO’s own standards.

First, the ICAO specifies that offsets must be ‘additional’, i.e. that airlines pay for emissions reductions that wouldn’t have happened anyway, which is almost impossible to prove.

Second, the ICAO also say offsets bought by airlines must not be ‘double-counted’, i.e. that they cannot also be used by forested countries to demonstrate emissions reductions. This would exclude most forests as these are typically already included in national greenhouse gas balance sheets, but it will be very difficult to avoid double-counting from happening.

Third, offsets must be permanent removals of CO2, otherwise there is no climate benefit.  This is not the case with forests which release CO2 if they burn or decay.

ICAO standards also require that offsets ‘do no harm’. But examples of where forest offsets have excluded people from their land are rife. Given the social conflict  that’s arisen from people being denied access to their land and  their traditional use of forests being restricted, airlines must consider the likely damage to communities – and hence their own reputation.

Perhaps most importantly, with less than five years left until our cumulative emissions put the 1.5-degree temperature target out of reach, we do not have the luxury to choose between reducing emissions and offsetting. Both emission reductions and protecting forests are needed if we have any chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees.

A more ambitious deal is needed, that reduces emissions instead of increasing them. The EU should fight for this, and as a first step, ensure that land and forest carbon offsets are excluded.