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Five responses to the aviation industry’s carbon offsetting scam

On 7 October 2016, the General Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) announced its plans to set up a mechanism to offset its ever increasing greenhouse gas emissions. The Global Market-Based Measure is planned to start in 2021, but all the details (such as which carbon credits might be elligible) are still to be agreed.

ICAO’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) is not a cap and trade scheme. It’s even worse. It’s carbon trade without a cap. Emissions from flying under this scheme will continue to increase dramatically.

Until 2027, states can choose whether or not to take part in ICAO’s carbon offsetting scheme. But the problem isn’t whether carbon offsetting is voluntary or not. The problem is carbon offsetting, because it does not reduce emissions.

Nevertheless, Christiana Figueres, ex-Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, and Laurence Tubiana, France’s Ambassador for Climate Change, wrote under the headline “The Dawn of Climate-Friendly Air Travel” that,

With the Paris climate agreement on track to enter into force in the coming months – more rapidly than anyone ever thought possible – we still have that momentum. The ICAO agreement is the next wave in the international battle against climate change. Together, the two agreements will boost our chances of delivering environmentally sustainable economic growth. By cleaning up our carbon footprint now, future generations of air travelers from all countries will be able to look out their window onto a healthy planet.

The reality is that the aviation industry’s failure to reduce its emissions means the Paris Agreement is toast. Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, tweeted:

REDD-Monitor asked five climate activists for their responses to the ICAO deal:

Magdalena HeuwieserMagdalena Heuwieser, Finance & Trade Watch, Austria:
With the new aviation-climate deal, governments provided the aviation industry a license to grow. In the meantime, all around the world people were protesting against aviation growth and the expansion of new airport projects. “Stay grounded!“ was the message sent to the ICAO at actions in Mexico, UK, Turkey, Austria, Germany, France, Australia, and Canada:

Often, the airport expansions affect local communities, as it is the case with a new six-runway airport at Mexico City, or destroy large and important ecosystems, as in Istanbul. Less than 10 % of the world population flies more and more, while the others bear the burden: people suffering from expulsion, noise, fine dust, and climate change. A few weeks earlier, the group „Black Lives Matter“ called attention to the injustice and racism connected to flying by blocking a runway in London.

The ICAO-result is exactly what the powerful aviation industry, which is closely connected to the oil and military industry, wanted: “The industry believes that a simple carbon offsetting scheme would be the quickest to implement, the easiest to administer and the most cost-efficient“, they argued. But it is definetely not the best for the climate. Indeed, it’s a dangerous lie to present aviation as sustainable or carbon-neutral, since it can lead to rebound-effects („I can continue to fly, since it’s carbon-neutral“) and because it distracts from real necessary solutions. If we really want to combat climate change, we need to reduce emissions at the source. If one sector can buy itself out of own reductions, systemic changes (which are needed) in mobility, energy, agriculture, trade, economy are impeded.

So is any deal better than no deal? In this case: No. It would open up again the discussion around climate solutions in the aviation sector, which too quickly were limited on the market based mechanism and closed the gate to other solutions, which actually had been on the table before already, like a kerosene tax. It would give transport and environmental ministers the time to realize that aviation is related to the mobility system and that trains could cover the majority of flights (in the EU, most flights are short distance). And policy makers might realize that in order to prevent climate change, it’s not either saving forests OR reducing aviation, but both. 50 organisations therefore called for a stop of new airport projects and state incentives for avation, and to invest in affordable and attractive train transport and to strenghten regional production systems (which would lower cargo flights).


Nnimmo BasseyNnimmo Bassey, Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Nigeria:
When airlines talk of carbon offsets one may be thinking that they are off on a flight of fancy to the clouds. However, the truth is that for the sake of the planet they must abort this flight rather than take off on a false and patently unjust climate flight path.


2016-10-18-201348_1124x1026_scrotIvonne Yanez, Oilwatch, Ecuador:
The aviation industry is very irresponsible to imagine that it will be able to increase its emissions by 700 per cent by 2050. What’s worse is that it thinks it can do so by way of an uncontrollable expansion in biofuel cropping that will lead to deforestation and the grabbing of agricultural lands. The industry’s plans are bound to result in violations of the right to food sovereignty and to encourage more use of fossil fuels.

The aviation business may also seek to “offset” its emissions by appropriating forests through REDD-type projects, mainly in the global South. Yet we know that such “compensation” projects do not reduce emissions and merely amount to permission to continue the extraction and consumption of gas, coal or oil.

Almost twenty years ago, at COP 3 in Kyoto in 1997, Oilwatch launched its worldwide campaign for a moratorium on oil activities, and ten years ago its proposal to leave remaining oil underground, with a first step to be taken in the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador. After all these years we remain convinced that the best way to combat climate change is to stop taking fossil fuels out of the ground. Rejection of REDD and biofuels must go hand in hand with the declaration of more and more territories free from petroleum.


Maxime CoombesMaxime Coombes, spokesperson for Attac France on climate issues:
Just when the EU ratified the Paris Agreement, the aviation sector obtained a guarantee to continue its unlimited growth without any consideration of the climate crisis: “a carbon-neutral growth” does not mean reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon offsetting means that GHG emissions are not limited and can increase without limit.

In the final text of the ICAO decision, there is no longer any reference to long-term goals consistent with Article 2 of the Paris Agreement which stipulates that states have to contain global warming well below 2°C, and ideally below 1.5°C. As a result, airlines have no long-term goal and the Paris Agreement goals, as limited as they are, are just ignored. At the request of aviation lobbies, the transport ministers of the states agreed to jeopardize the Article 2 of the Paris Agreement just at the moment when the European Union was ratifying the Paris agreement, at the moment when commentators and opinion-makers were hailing the forthcoming entry into force of the Paris Agreement.

Assuming the “inevitable growth of the aviation sector”, the UN States have, in fact, agreed that aviation emissions could grow without any limit. This aviation growth is also raised as the main argument to justify the construction or expansion of 2,500 airports worldwide, amounting to huge investments estimated at $441 billion. This is the argument used to justify the construction of the airport of Notre Dame des Landes in France, which is presented as a green airport because the biodiversity destroyed by the construction will be offset and carbon emissions will also be compensated. Yet this growth is utterly unsustainable: the aviation sector would be able to gobble up nearly a quarter of the available carbon budget we have by 2050 to keep global warming below 1.5°C.


2016-10-18-221258_1336x1026_scrotFERN, Brussels:
The EU and its partners from the ‘High Ambition Coalition,’ recently called on countries to join a voluntary carbon-offsetting scheme to compensate for aviation’s massive projected growth in emissions. Unfortunately, such a call undermines the very purpose of the coalition: to limit warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Since offsetting does not reduce emissions, allowing the aviation sector to grow and offset will almost certainly mean we will over-step the carbon budget (the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that can be emitted and still keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius).

The EU is right to push for more ambition in this sector: international aviation, synonymous with the polluting habits of the few (globally, fewer than seven per cent of people fly) is a top-ten polluter. But the sector’s plan to cut carbon emissions is laughable: to allow exponential growth in emissions, and claim that this growth is ‘carbon neutral’ due to an offsetting scheme. Forests cannot offset aviation’s emissions, as Fern pointed out in a video clip that went viral on social media.

Pushing guilt-free flying, in which airlines offset their emissions with forests, is absurd as forests are a temporary and reversible source of carbon storage. In a warming world, it is likely that major forest basins such as the Amazon will die-back, so any emissions taken in will soon be released again. Offsetting ignores the huge difference between having carbon locked in fossil fuels and having it temporarily stored in trees. There is also a significant risk that offset credits would be ‘double counted,’ since most forested countries have already counted the reduction in emissions from reining in deforestation as part of their international climate commitments.

Speaking out about what should be done to tackle aviation emissions, more than 100 organisations including Fern, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth issued a declaration stating that, if we are serious about limiting warming then the aviation sector must accept a deal that actually reduces emissions. As a first step, forest carbon offsets must be ruled out.


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  1. The airline industry is doing just what one would expect it to do. But the actions of so-called green organisations supporting ICAO’s plans to carry on destroying the planet are more surprising. Some of them are pure free-market ideologues, some possibly corrupted by the vested industrial interests present on their Boards, some likely corrupted by the money from ICAO’s offsetting schemes that are likely to flow through their coffers, and some are possibly just misguided.

    But they all now stand accused of gross treachery to the planet.

    For the sake of clarity, these disgusting organisations are:

    Conservation International
    Environmental Defense Fund
    Forest Trends
    Global Canopy Programme
    IUCN Netherlands Committee
    The Nature Conservancy
    Wildlife Conservation Society

    Anyone with the least concern for the future of the planet should withdraw any support for these organisations immediately.

  2. Here in Sydney, Australia, with emissions still rising and no government action, this is a real problem as is the proposal to construct a second airport in a location which is already affected by air pollution from vehicle emissions. Before the airport is operational emissions for particulate matter will be above World Health Organisation standard.

    As well, the location cannot meet international safety standards for bird and bat strike. The risk is high because within the 13km radius are two protected wildlife areas, THE Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and Sydney’s drinking water storage in Warragamba Dam. With Flying Fox Camps on all sides of the location and local food sources and water protected the risk is very high. Will ICAO speak against this travesty? Who knows? Will UNESCO speak on behalf of our magnificent wilderness Blue Mountains? Seems not!

    Yet our government is determined to push ahead with this! So who speaks for the people who will suffer the impacts? Who speaks for the natural quiet of our spectacular Blue Mountains and the protected species within? Seems no one in this greed driven world cares enough!