Campaigners argue rulebook for impending CORSIA offset deal will reward airlines for using fossil fuels
The UN's aviation agency ICAO yesterday agreed new standards to govern a pioneering carbon offset deal for the global aviation industry.
The scheme has been hailed as a major step forward for the sector, which will help drive investment in cleaner aviation fuels and mobilise investment in emission reduction schemes around the world. The offset scheme is also seen as critical to justifying investment in airport expansion, including the UK government's controversial backing this week for a third runway at Heathrow.
But campaigners were left unimpressed by what they described as an "extremely disappointing" move to allow airlines to claim credit for 'low-carbon' fossil fuels as long as they emit less carbon over their life-cycle than standard fuels.
For example, airlines burning kerosene could be rewarded with reduced obligations to buy carbon offsets if the refinery producing the oil was running on renewable electricity, or if the refinery was running enhanced oil recovery technology.
The news emerged from a crunch meeting of ICAO yesterday in Montreal, where new standards for the global aviation sector's climate deal, known as CORSIA, were agreed.
Under CORSIA, all international passenger and cargo flights, as well as business jets that generate more than 10,000 tonnes of emissions annually, will be required to purchase internationally approved carbon credits in a bid to ensure aviation emissions are effectively capped at 2020 levels.
The scheme is slated to come into effect from 2021, with a pilot phase set to run until 2023, followed by a voluntary phase that will run through to 2027. From 2027 all states, with the exception of some developing nations that will be exempted from the scheme, will be mandated to join the carbon-pricing initiative.
Agreed in 2016, the scheme was billed as the answer to the aviation industry's hefty greenhouse gas emissions profile, which is set to rise dramatically over the coming decades.
According to ICAO, yesterday's agreement represents "important headway" for the scheme's rulebook, putting it on track for airlines to start monitoring their fuel and carbon emissions by January 2019 in preparation for CORSIA's introduction.
"Aviation has now set out not only its climate change goals, but also the means to achieve them," said ICAO council president Dr Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu. "The progress achieved today is a clear demonstration of the unwavering commitment, on behalf of both governments and airlines, to minimise the future impact of international aviation on the global climate."
But fears are mounting that the environmental credibility of the CORSIA scheme is crumbling. According to WWF's transport specialist James Beard, the agreement that airlines could in principle claim credit for fossil fuels "was dropped like a grenade" into discussions a few months ago before then being pushed through in recent talks.
The move "sends all the wrong signal" about decarbonisation and boosts the risk of offsets being double counted, Beard told BusinessGreen.
The Environmental Defense Fund's international counsel Annie Petsonk agreed. "This change could present a serious stumbling block for CORSIA's overall credibility, as it remains doubtful whether such fuels could meet the stringent criteria that the public will expect from this system," she said in a statement.
Meanwhile further battles lie ahead. When talks resume in September emerging economies such as Brazil and China are expected to push for all carbon credits under UN Climate Change mechanisms to be eligible for the scheme, regardless of how old the projects are, according to Climate Home News. Other nations are concerned that allowing old credits in to the scheme would reduce the extent to which the CORSIA drives new emissions reduction measures on the ground.
Seven European countries have already threatened to leave the agreement this year if its environmental safeguards are weakened any further, after sustainability requirements for jet biofuels were cut from 12 criteria to just two.
But Andrew Murphy, aviation manager at campaign group Transport & Environment, told BusinessGreen "no one is listening to Europe" while ICAO is "bending over backwards" to broker an agreement between industrialised and developing nations even if it means making concessions on CORSIA's green standards.
Countries will return to the negotiating table in September to thrash out the final rules for how the offset scheme works. But it seems there is a real danger that by keeping everyone on board with the deal, the potential green benefits of a scheme that was meant to clear a new era of green aviation for take off may fail to take flight altogether.
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