Updated with reaction of European Commission
European Council representatives agreed on Tuesday (9 June) to push for coronavirus-induced rule changes to the UN’s aviation emissions offset scheme. Instead of curbing CO2 at 2019-2020 levels, the EU, as well as airlines, want the baseline to be just last year.
Under the scheme – known as CORSIA – emissions from commercial planes should be capped at current levels and any growth in the coming years offset by payments into green projects, like renewable energy or reforestation.
The rules, agreed in 2018, say the grand total of emissions produced in 2019 and 2020 should be used as the baseline for offsets. A pilot phase will start in 2021, ahead of full implementation in 2027.
But the coronavirus outbreak has destroyed air travel demand and the industry predicts it will take a number of years for traffic to recover to pre-crisis levels. Airlines have therefore pushed for this year’s log of lower emissions to be discounted from the calculations.
The logic goes that 2020’s lower output will drag the bar down, meaning carriers will have to shell out more cash in order to neutralise their carbon footprint.
The European Commission agreed with that suggestion in its proposal for the EU’s common position for the International Commercial Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) council meeting, which kicked off this week in Montreal.
EU Council representatives have now also signed off on the idea to push for a baseline change and the issue will be on the agenda of the UN meeting, due to last until 26 June.
“Adapting the baseline is crucial to maintaining a similar level of ambition for the scheme and the commitment of ICAO states to the CORSIA pilot phase while taking into account the extremely difficult circumstances created by the pandemic for international air traffic,” said Croatia’s transport minister, Oleg Butković.
Croatia holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council until the end of June, when Germany takes over.
A Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV that the institution “welcomes that EU member states yesterday agreed on a collective position to be taken at the ongoing session of the ICAO Council”, including CORSIA’s reference period for CO2 growth.
“Looking ahead, we need to achieve for our economy, including aviation, a green recovery and embark on the transition towards climate-neutrality, in line with the European Green Deal objectives, and ultimately needed to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement,” they added.
The spokesperson concluded that the success of CORSIA in achieving its goal of compensating for aviation CO2 growth beyond 2020 should act as an incentive for more greening efforts in international air travel.
Senior MEPs – including Parliament’s environment committee chair, Pascal Canfin, and Greens co-leader Bas Eickhout – had urged the Council not to push for changes now and wait until 2022, during CORSIA’s first scheduled review.
“CORSIA is already extremely far from being in line with the Paris Agreement and climate neutrality objective,” their joint letter said, adding that recent research shows that changes now would “seriously undermine the environmental integrity of the scheme”.
Canfin said after the Council decision that “the EU should be leading on emission regulation, not watering down the ambition”, adding that the Commission should ensure it champions Europe’s right to regulate airline emissions under the bloc’s carbon market.
If the baseline change is indeed made at the ongoing ICAO meeting, then the Commission has suggested that the 2022 review would be an opportunity to readdress the issue and take stock of how the virus will have affected the sector in the meantime.
However, the MEPs warned that such a strategy would be “naive” and argued that the unpredictable nature of the pandemic’s economic impact means that changes should be delayed until a clearer overview is possible.
Gilles Dufrasne, an aviation expert at non-profit Carbon Market Watch, told EURACTIV that the baseline change might mean airlines do not need to buy offset permits until at least 2023, or maybe even 2025.
“That is definitely less ambitious than what was planned,” he said, referring to Minister Butković’s statement.
He added that “it’s very disappointing to see EU countries taking a step backwards on climate policy while handing out billions in bailouts to airlines” who are “exploiting the situation to the fullest to fight climate policies”.
France unveiled a €15 billion rescue package for its aerospace industry earlier on Tuesday, €7 billion of which is an already-agreed bailout for national carrier Air France. But the government has green ambitions and wants to stimulate R&D into zero-emission flight.
According to the scheme, €1.5bn will be set aside for the development of aircraft powered by hydrogen, biofuels and hybrid-electric systems, with the aim of putting an actual aircraft into service by 2035.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]