Environmental groups slam airline carbon-offset program

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Can the air transport industry get a a grip on its greenhouse gas emissions? @bberwyn photo.

Voluntary program won’t help curb rapidly rising emissions, according to critics

Staff Report

Climate activists and conservation groups say a voluntary international airline carbon-trading scheme doesn’t go nearly far enough to curb greenhouse gas pollution.

Growth in the aviation sector puts the industry on track to triple emissions by 2050, but the new carbon-offset program won’t even take effect until 2021 and is slated to remain voluntary through 2027. According to the climate-action advocates, the deal, adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), only covers about a quarter of total emissions and shifts the industry’s growing carbon debt on to third parties using what could be questionable carbon-offset credits.

That means airlines could pay as little as 3 cents on the dollar for the climate impacts of international flights, at a time when the rest of the world has committed to making deep cuts in emissions during the next couple of decades in an effort to limit global warming at a less-than-catastrophic level.

ICAO says the agreement is a first step toward ensuring that the industry can grow sustainably, with no net carbon impacts, beyond 2020.

“This dangerous shell game does little more than help airlines hide their rapidly growing threat to our climate,” said Vera Pardee, a Center for Biological Diversity attorney who has sued the U.S. federal government over aviation emissions. “The world needs less polluting planes, not a dubious offset scheme that just passes off the industry’s exploding carbon debt to someone else. This weak measure puts new pressure on U.S. officials to take stronger steps to curb aviation’s skyrocketing emissions,” Pardee said, referring to the EPA’s authority to regulate airline greenhouse gas emissions as a threat to human health and safety.

The airline industry has endorsed the credits in lieu of tough emission standards, despite a recent report showing that available and cost-effective technical efficiency improvements could reduce emissions from new aircraft some 25 percent by 2024 and 40 percent by 2034.

The ICAO system will cover about 25 percent of total international emissions, since all emissions below 2020 levels are grandfathered. Until 2027 all offset purchases are voluntary.

Whether the offsets will have any benefit for the climate is far from clear. In August nonprofit observers evaluating the offsets gave their environmental integrity an overall “D,” with critical elements such as accounting veracity and biofuel sustainability getting an incomplete and an “F.”

Today’s market-based measure follows lax ICAO emission standards agreed to last February. Those earlier standards will not curb emissions and do not meet U.S. legal requirements, and the new offset scheme does not plug the gap. That puts new pressure on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to step in with ambitious Clean Air Act emission standards that will cost-effectively prevent emissions in the first place rather than paper them over with often cheap and ineffective offsets.

“The evidence of climate change is becoming clearer each and every day,” said Marcie Keever, legal director for Friends of the Earth. “The Obama administration must not rely on faulty offset schemes for aircraft CO2 from the ICAO, but act immediately to curb aircraft’s significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.”

The EPA in July officially acknowledged in a final “endangerment finding” that planet-warming pollution from airplanes disrupts the climate and endangers human welfare. But the agency failed to move forward on standards to reduce aircraft emissions.

Airplane greenhouse gas pollution is growing rapidly. If commercial aviation were considered a country, it would rank seventh after Germany in terms of carbon emissions. Airplanes could generate 43 gigatonnes of planet-warming pollution through 2050, consuming more than 4 percent of the world’s entire remaining carbon budget, according to a recent Center report.

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