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Behind the veil: what the aviation industry really thinks about climate change

Dr Roger Tyers of Southampton University writes about the recent Aviation Carbon conference in this Long Read.

FlightFree UK
03 Dec 8 min read

My career has taken me to some weird and wonderful places, but November’s ‘Aviation Carbon 2019’ conference – a two-day industry event where airlines get together to discuss their response to climate change – was one of the weirdest, if not the most wonderful.

A swanky Marriott hotel on the fringe of Heathrow airport was a fitting and surreal venue. As I arrived, the deafening roar of jets taking off every minute from the UK’s biggest airport – and its biggest single source of carbon dioxide pollution – illustrated what this was all about.

I arrived at the hotel and sheepishly picked up my delegate badge, soon realising I was the only academic among over about 250 attendees, some paying up to £2000 for entry (not I!). Scanning the attendee list, most were from airlines, manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus, a few representatives from the UK and USA governments, some from ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the powerful UN body which regulates aviation) and the industry body IATA (the International Air Travel Association), plus a tiny gaggle of representatives from green-aviation lobby groups, and little old me.

One of those green-lobbyists, Tim Johnson of the Aviation Environment Federation, was the first speaker. He described the recent, unprecedented rise in concern over climate change - Extinction Rebellion, Greta, the Green New Deal, and all that – and how the aviation industry was coming under scrutiny for its lack of a credible response. The Flight-shame phenomenon was discussed, as was the movement of people quitting flying altogether (FlightFreeUK even got a mention!). Johnson flagged the recent report from the Committee on Climate Change which said that unchecked, aviation would be the UK’s biggest emitter by 2050, and mentioned another of my ‘favourite’ facts: that last year, more Brits took international flights than any other nationality, despite us having less than 1% of the world population. Briefly, I felt I was with people who understood the scale of the problem, the UK’s particular responsibility, and the need for radical solutions.

That feeling didn’t last long. Next up was a panel of leading industry reps (from Heathrow Airport; IAG: BA and Iberia’s parent company; the Air Transport Action Group) who seemed more relaxed: the ‘Greta effect’ on flying less was actually only being felt in Europe, and even here with minimal effect, so far. While many optimistically point to Sweden’s reduction in passenger growth in 2019, the rest of Europe is still seeing growth, just perhaps not quite as much as expected. Meanwhile, in big growth markets like the Middle East or Asia, its effect hasn’t registered at all. Global passenger growth is booming, the good times are still here. I’m not sure which panellist uttered “Flying is not the problem, carbon is the problem” at this point. My gaze had slumped to the floor.

Later panels focussed on CORSIA, the industry’s flagship response to climate change, and the main topic of the whole event. CORSIA – the Carbon Offset and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation – is a mechanism designed by the brightest brains at ICAO, under which aviation can continue to grow, but with ‘net-neutral growth’ from 2020 onwards. Critics cite several problems with it. Emissions below a 2020 baseline are not covered at all, neither are domestic flight emissions. Emissions above the 2020 baseline will be ‘reduced’ through a combination of fuel efficiencies, improvements in air traffic management (re-routing planes, reducing bottlenecks), and introducing more sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs). The remaining, pretty huge shortfall in emissions will be covered by carbon offsetting on an industrial scale. IATA estimate that about 2.5 billion tonnes of offsets will be required by CORSIA between 2021 and 2035. The exact kinds of offset schemes – tree-planting, green energy, methane capture, something else – that will be permissible under CORSIA are yet to be confirmed, but ICAO has set up a Technical Advisory Body (TAB) of experts who aim to ensure that the criteria for permissible offsets are as robust as possible. How those criteria are agreed will be critical and contentious.

The very concept of offsetting has detractors. Partly this is due to bad experiences of offsetting, both in the voluntary market and the UNFCCC’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), with examples of undelivered carbon emissions and dodgy accounting in the opaque world of global carbon finance. Some question offsets on a philosophical level, arguing that they weaken the imperative to reduce our fossil fuel consumption now, because we can continue to emit carbon and just remove it later. These arguments didn’t get much of an airing at this conference. For airlines and other stakeholders, CORSIA is now a regulatory reality and they just have to comply with it.

In fairness, many panellists admitted that CORSIA is an imperfect, fragile political compromise between ICAO’s 191 member states. Getting ICAO to pass it at all was a minor miracle, and it’s a work-in-progress. CORSIA seems to represent a delicate bridge between predominantly European ICAO member states who are concerned about climate change and public opinion, and those who would prefer to just grow their aviation sectors in peace like Russia, India, and China. The fact that the Trump administration, which has been so hostile to the Paris climate agreement, can live with CORSIA, is telling.

But CORSIA isn’t the only game in town. In the EU there is already a regulatory system in place, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which has covered emissions from international flights within the European Economic Area (basically the EU, Switzerland and a few other states) since 2012. CORSIA is intended to be the only, global emissions scheme for aviation, so ICAO (and many airlines) want it to replace the ETS, and any other regional schemes – to avoid a ‘patchwork’ of regulation. You aren’t supposed to have two simultaneous schemes in Europe, so a showdown between the EU and ICAO seems inevitable.

In one of the more interesting exchanges of the event, Andrew Murphy (of green lobby group Transport and Environment – T&E) defended the ETS against CORSIA. He noted that although the ETS has its own weaknesses, it is unlike CORSIA, a proven system, and it uses a more stringent baseline against which emissions reductions are calculated (2005 emissions under ETS, a more generous 2020 baseline under CORSIA). Crucially, it also has a more expensive carbon price, of about €25/tonne CO2 currently, whereas than CORSIA is expected to have one closer to €1/tonne. T&E have estimated that between 2020 and 2030, €10billion would be collected from airlines flying in Europe under the ETS. But if it were replaced by CORSIA, that could drop to just €1 billion. As Murphy said, a €9billion effective subsidy to a fossil fuel industry in a time of climate crisis isn’t a good look. The industry argues that they don’t want a ‘patchwork’ of regulation, just a single global scheme – CORSIA. That sounds intuitively like a reasonable desire for simplicity. But perhaps their real motivation is a more obvious one – money.

Sustainable Aviation fuels were discussed in another panel. There are some promising developments going on in this area, not least BA and Shell’s plans for the UK’s first waste-to-fuel facility to be built in Humberside in the next few years. There are some carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative fuels at the R+D stage, we were told. But with the industry’s huge appetite for kerosene, sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) are projected to still be a tiny niche, because they are hard to scale up, production sites are scarce, and they are more expensive than cheap (cough…tax-free…) kerosene. A rep from Airbus argued that governments need to incentivise a faster transition to SAFs, presumably by tax breaks of some kind. No-one mentioned the idea that if governments taxed kerosene - a tax ‘stick’, not a tax ‘carrot’ - that might prove much more effective motivation to switch. Kerosene’s current tax-free status has, in my opinion, stifled research and development of alternative aviation fuels for decades. After all, why would airlines invest in alternatives when they can fill planes with old-fashioned, untaxed kerosene? When I suggested this to a delegate outside the conference hall, he looked perplexed. “But taxing fuel would mean more expensive ticket prices, and passengers are very price-sensitive – especially you stingy Brits!”. Indeed.

Carbon taxes or demand suppression were topics notable by their absence at this conference. The only time I heard taxes mentioned at all was in one disdainful comment from an IATA rep, who argued that governments wouldn’t use flight taxes for ‘green’ policies anyway, they would just pocket the revenues, so why bother? I thought of the ‘Gilet Jaunes’’ anger at increasing fuel taxes on cars – used by parents, rural residents and local traders – contrasted with zero-fuel taxes for planes, used disproportionately by white-collar elites. But this was not the forum for a discussion of tax justice, or a progressive/sustainable fiscal policy in transport.

I left feeling somewhat deflated. The aviation industry is betting the farm on CORSIA, despite its flaws. I suspect CORSIA will be used by airlines and national governments to show their ‘passionate commitment to sustainability’. I wonder whether passengers will dig deeper into this ‘solution’ to realise that flight tickets are still cheap, flights and emissions are increasing, and nothing has really changed, or if they will be reassured by the words ‘carbon-neutral growth’ and continue to book flights without a guilty conscience. The public are still largely ignorant of aviation emissions, so I fear it will only be a minority who really see through the green-wash.

Ultimately, the real action is not at events like this for the ‘rule-takers’. Airlines will always seek growth and profits within the rules, like any business. The real action is with the rule-makers: ICAO and state governments, who have so far set very lax rules for airlines regarding their climate impact.

BA and Easyjet’s recent conversion to offsetting their passengers’ flights – magically making them ‘carbon neutral’ – shows that the PR war over aviation emissions has already begun. Those of us on the other side of the debate need to maintain pressure, point to the facts, call out industry bullshit, and frame our arguments against industry expansion in terms of tax justice as much as climate change. Our audience should be the general public and politicians, because if there’s one thing that this conference showed me, it’s that this issue cannot be left to the industry.

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