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On flying, forests and phasing out fossil fuels


You probably know that there is a global deal on climate change in the offing in Paris next month. What you may not know is that there is another global climate deal in the offing in Montréal next year – focused on cutting carbon emissions from international flights. Globally, CO2 emissions from aviation are roughly equal to those of Germany, and they’re growing fast.

This is why I’ve spent the past two weeks in Montréal, working through the UN International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) on the technical details of a global market-based measure (MBM) that countries will hopefully agree at ICAO’s General Assembly roughly one year from now.

My trip began in Brussels for a meeting with European delegates and stakeholders. Getting to Brussels was a breeze, as the train takes you straight from city centre to city centre, with minimal security hassle and phone signal throughout (except 15 minutes in the tunnel!).

From Brussels, I flew out to Montréal for two weeks of meetings at ICAO HQ. Of course, at WWF-UK we have to practice what we preach, so we stick to tight carbon budgets on our travel and we offset those flights we cannot avoid – such as this one.

Brad Schallert (WWF-US), Tim Johnson (AEF and ICSA delegation leader) and myself in front of ICAO HQ.Brad Schallert (WWF-US), Tim Johnson (AEF and ICSA delegation leader) and myself in front of ICAO HQ.

The first week of meetings was focused on aviation biofuels while the second week was focused on the technical design of the MBM. The two issues are connected, because flying on biofuels is one way airlines can reduce their carbon footprint. Other solutions include measures that improve fuel efficiency and the purchase of carbon offsets from other sectors.

WWF-UK is working to ensure that offsets and biofuels promoted under the MBM generate real, permanent emissions reductions and promote sustainable development. The new Sustainable Development Goals offer a helpful framework for thinking through this challenge, which involves a complex process of technical and political negotiation.

We are part of the larger NGO group the International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation (ICSA). Across two weeks and three meetings (on biofuels, the MBM and a CO2 standard for aircraft), ICSA fielded 10 experts from six NGOs. We teamed up to make sure we had the rights experts to tackle the key issues, ranging from the basic building blocks of the MBM, to what types of biofuels and offsets will be allowed in the scheme, to difficult questions of governance and transparency.

This technical work is just one half of the process though. The other half is the political process of sharing out the emissions target between different countries and their airlines. Without agreement at this political level, there will be no deal, so it’s really important that the proposal is fair for all countries, including those who are not actively participating in the process.

On the Saturday between weeks one and two I took a walk up the Parc Mont Royal (affectionately dubbed “The Mountain” by the locals) and explored its beautiful woodland. Parc Mont Royal is clearly in no danger of disappearing any time soon. But vast swathes of forest around the world are at risk, including in the Amazon and East Africa – both priority parts of the world for WWF-UK.

One of the key questions in the MBM process is: If ICAO opens up the market for aviation biofuels and forest-based carbon offsets, what will the impact be for forests?

Walking through the woods in Parc Mont Royal I wondered what role, if any, forests should play in the ICAO MBM.Walking through the woods in Parc Mont Royal I wondered what role, if any, forests should play in the ICAO MBM.

On biofuels, it all depends on the sustainability criteria. With weak sustainability safeguards, deforestation could increase as farmers clear forests to grow more crops for fuel or food. However, with strong safeguards, people, planes and planet could benefit from truly sustainable biofuels. The key thing is to design a robust sustainability framework before considering any introduction of incentives.

In terms of forest offsets, one proposal is that airlines should be able to buy emissions credits from forest protection programmes (such as REDD+) and count them towards their own emissions targets.  It’s great that airlines want to help protect forests, but on the other hand, these credits could end up competing with emissions credits from renewable energy or energy efficiency projects.

One of the major challenges for international climate policy is balancing the need to protect our forests with the need to phase out fossil fuels. Both are crucial to avoiding dangerous climate change, and both require creative thinking and hard work.

By the end of my time in Canada, I felt we had made good progress towards the global MBM. But I also know that the current emissions target of the MBM (a plateauing of net emissions from 2020) will not be enough on its own. Over time, either the target must increase, or additional measures will be required. This is why it’s great news that the draft text for the Paris COP keeps the pressure up on ICAO to deliver climate solutions for aviation. Let’s hope it makes the final cut!

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