Right now, 191 countries are in the final throes of negotiating a global climate agreement for the aviation sector. It’s happening at the Assembly of the UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in Montreal. By far the majority of countries support the deal, which would require airlines to offset the industry’s growth in emissions from 2020. Already 63 countries have stepped up to participate in the “Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation” (CORSIA) from day one – and we’re hoping for many more to come.
There are just a handful of countries pushing back against the agreement now. One of them is the Russian Federation, who yesterday claimed that the CORSIA will actually increase carbon emissions and sea level rise. As evidence they cited a statement claiming that the ICAO plan to “offset emissions will push global warming beyond 1.5°C”.
The statement raises genuine concerns about carbon offsetting, which WWF fully shares. Offsetting should only be pursued as a last resort, which is why it’s great news that 60% of Brits are willing to fly less to help tackle climate change. There is no shortage of bad news stories about carbon offsets that have either failed to reduce emissions or wrought havoc on sustainable development.
These offsets fail to reduce emissions because they would have happened anyway, because the emissions reductions are reversible, or because of dodgy counting and measurement. They also undermine sustainable development by forcing communities off their land or destroying habitats for wildlife in order to make room for projects such as large hydro.
However, there are also ample good news stories about offset projects that both reduce emissions and support sustainable development. Projects certified to the Gold Standard, for example, must meet tough rules to demonstrate real emissions reductions, whilst avoiding any negative impacts. They can also make positive contributions towards sustainable development, such as jobs in building and maintaining biodigesters, improved air quality from reduced fossil fuel use and modernised waste treatment, and energy access thanks to rural renewable energy projects.
Earlier this year, WWF asked the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) to figure out whether there are enough good quality carbon offsets (and sustainable alternative fuels) to meet the ICAO goal of “carbon neutral growth from 2020”. The answer is yes – the combined contribution of good quality carbon offsets and sustainable alternative fuels could meet ICAO’s goal, as long as good progress is made on aircraft and operational efficiency. Even with less progress on these measures, the goal can still be met by including projects that require certification to ensure emissions benefits, and that pose little risk to sustainable development.
ICAO will not decide the rules for offsets and biofuels at this Assembly. They’ve been working on them for a couple of years, and will continue working on them over the next year or so at least. WWF has been feeding into this work along with NGO colleagues such as Carbon Market Watch and Environmental Defense Fund. Here are the rules already agreed by ICAO’s Committee on Aviation Environment Protection (CAEP).
It’s a pretty good start. To further develop and finalise these criteria, we would love to have more support from the experts that are most concerned about carbon offsetting. Along with colleagues in the International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation (ICSA), WWF will keep working on the CORSIA beyond the Assembly to make sure it is a force for good, supporting the aims of both the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.
For now, the key thing is to get as many countries as possible on board. Has your country signed up yet?