Six European nations have hinted any further dilution of green standards in the CORSIA carbon offset scheme could see them pull out of the flagship deal
Just as the UK government formally gives its backing for a third Heathrow runway while largely ignoring its potential carbon emissions impact, there may be trouble brewing for the international aviation industry's hard-won-but-oft-criticised climate deal.
According to documents released today by EU green group Transport & Environment (T&E), six of Britain's European neighbours have rallied against any potential dilution of green safeguards in the global aviation sector's climate deal, known as CORSIA.
France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Finland and Norway have warned they may pull out of the international carbon offsetting scheme for aircraft emissions if its environmental safeguards are weakened any further. The scheme, which is meant to help hold global aviation emissions flat at 2020 levels, is supposed to come into effect on a voluntary basis in three years time, before becoming largely mandatory from 2027 onwards.
The six separate letters sent to UN aviation agency ICAO contain no absolute red lines, but nevertheless warn against sustainability rules governing the use of carbon offsets and alternative plane fuels being watered down any further as part of on-going negotiations.
France's letter to the ICAO states that if countries "were to question certain aspects of the compromise reached, particularly with regard to emission units and the sustainability of alternative fuels, the agreement given by France to this version of the text would be compromised".
Moreover, an additional six nations have similarly suggested to ICAO they may potentially pull out of CORSIA - which stands for the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation - over the environmental concerns, with T&E claiming to have seen further documents from Germany, Poland, Romania, Portugal, Slovenia and Malta. However, these six letters have not been made publicly available as yet.
It follows an ICAO meeting last November, at which countries agreed to reduce the number of sustainability standards that would allow jet biofuels to be recognised under the offsetting scheme. Twelve sustainability criteria were cut down to just two, with safeguards covering issues such as biodiversity protection, land rights, and food security all removed.
Critics of the approach said the dilution of the standards were significant, given they are expected to become the defacto sustainability standard for the nascent jet biofuel industry. Campaigners fear that without stringent sustainability standards a surge in demand for jet biofuels could lead to precisely the same concerns about impacts on land use that have afflicted the wider biofuels sector.
The warnings against any further dilution of standards from European countries could therefore spell trouble for the ICAO carbon deal, which is set to come into effect from 2021 with a pilot phase running until 2023 followed by a voluntary phase running until 2027. From then on all states, with the exception of some developing nations exempted from the scheme, will be mandated to join the initiative, which requires airlines to buy offset credits in order to cap emissions from global aviation at 2020 levels.
The CORSIA deal took years of negotiations before it was finally cleared for take-off in 2016 and was hailed as a historic moment for the aviation industry in the fight against climate change. The principle of imposing an international carbon levy on aviation emissions and requiring airlines to fund credible offset schemes is seen as critical to curbing emissions from the sector. Moreover, the scheme has allowed governments such as the UK to justify airport expansion projects on the grounds co-ordinated international action is now underway to tackle aviation emissions.
However, green campaigners have criticised the deal for being far too weak and unambitious, and have questioned whether it will be able to curb the impact of a sector that accounts for around two per cent of global CO2 emissions and is seeing emissions rise sharply year-on-year.
As Michael Gill, executive director of global trade body the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), told a conference in Sydney yesterday, CORSIA is now "firmly in implementation phase", which leaves it open to potential heightening or lessening of its climate ambition.
Andrew Murphy, aviation manager at T&E, said that almost two years after the CORSIA deal was struck, it is now in serious danger of being watered down. "What started as a way to address aviation's runaway emissions has, step by step, turned into yet another greenwashing exercise for the aviation industry," he said. "These countries are right to say they may walk away if it gets any worse, but in many respects, the damage is already done."
The letters point to concern from European counties over the quality of offsets used in CORSIA, with all of them calling for a restriction of eligible offsets in the scheme to just those from projects created after 2016, which would thereby disallow use of earlier offset projects that are cheaper but are widely seen as less effective from a climate perspective.
The gambit echoes the EU's stance during the original CORSIA negotiations, where the bloc threatened to impose carbon levies on all flights in and out of EU member states on a regional basis if a credible international deal was not reached.
ICAO had not responded to BusinessGreen's request for comment at the time of going to press. But the letters released today show that, even after CORSIA was hailed as an historic breakthrough two years ago, the scheme is far from being a done deal.
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