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CORSIA: Offsetting emissions from aviation is a “dangerous, deeply flawed distraction”

The aviation sector is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2013, commercial airlines burned through 74 billion gallons of fuel, emitting 710 million tons of CO2. By 2018, fuel consumption had increased to 94 billion gallons, and CO2 emissions had increased to 905 million tons.

A new briefing by Biofuelwatch points out that the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has no plans to reduce this growth. Instead it is aiming for “carbon neutral emissions growth”, using “alternative” fuels and offsets.

“Dangerous, deeply flawed”

Biofuelwatch describes ICAO’s proposed Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) as “a dangerous, deeply flawed distraction that will result in more, not less emissions”.

Aviation emissions are worse than just the CO2 emissions, because of the chemical interactions that happen at high altitudes. Biofuelwatch explains that in terms of radiative forcing the total climate impact of aviation is between two and four times that of the CO2 emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

There are no available techno-fixes for the aviation industry to avoid burning fossil fuels. Reducing the number of flights is the only way of reducing emissions from the aviation sector.

That’s not an idea that ICAO is ever likely to promote though.

Aviation’s black box

ICAO is heavily industry dominated, and is one of the UN’s least transparent bodies, as Chloé Farand reported recently for Climate Home News.

ICAO uses a non-disclosure agreement to prevent leaks of documents from its from its committee on aviation environmental protection. Documents are kept on a secure portal. Accredited observers can only access documents once they have signed the agreement.

Farand explains that,

Under the agreement, observers “indemnify Icao from and against any and all actions, claims, losses, damages, liabilities and expenses” arising out of the disclosure of any information provided in the meetings. They do so “without limitation”.


In theory, this means leakers could be made to pay out vast financial claims made by airlines against the UN body as a result of documents becoming public.

Observers to ICAO’s meeting are heavily weighted towards industry. Farand writes that,

Six trade associations and lobby groups are accredited as observers to the meetings, according to participants lists dated between 2010 and 2019 obtained by CHN. NGOs are permitted to attend the meetings under a single observer delegation, the International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation.

Only six NGOs have signed up to the oxymoronic International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation:

None of these NGOs actively campaigns against offsets. At least two of them (EDF and WWF) actively campaign for offsets.

Alternative aviation fuels

ICAO plans to use “alternative” aviation fuels, supposedly to reduce emissions. But in 2018, ICAO decided that fossil fuels from newer oil wells, that need less energy to extract, can qualify as “alternative” aviation fuel. And if a refinery uses renewable energy, the oil can quality as “alternative” fuel.

The cheapest and most available biofuels for aviation are manufactured from palm oil and soy oil. Plantations of oil palm and soy have resulted in large scale deforestation. A 2016 study produced for the European Commission found that biofuels were worse for the climate than fossil fuels.

A report put out this week by Rainforest Foundation Norway warns that the increased demand for palm and soy oil to meet the aviation sector’s demand by 2030 could result in 3.2 million hectares of tropical forest loss.

Biofuelwatch notes that, “CORSIA sustainability criteria for aviation biofuels are woefully inadequate.”

Forest carbon offsets are unstable and unreliable

“CORSIA would allow virutally unlimited quantities of forest offsets,” Biofuelwatch writes.

Certainly we need to protect the world’s remaining forests, and forest restoration is an imperative, but we cannot use forest growth and management as “permits to pollute.” The climate is in crisis and we must urgently both reduce (aviation and other) emissions AND protect and restore forests. We cannot play one off against the other!

Offsetting emissions from flying against the carbon stored in forests runs the risks that the forest carbon will be released through wildfires, droughts, floods, pest invasions, illegal logging, geopolitical and economic dynamics, and the impacts of climate breakdown.

The recent fires in the Amazon highlight the dangers of relying on tropical forests to offset emissions.

Biofuelwatch notes that CORSIA’s Technical Advisory Board has invited existing offsetting schemes to apply for assessment against the CORSIA Emissions Unit Eligibility Criteria. It received 14 applications, including the Clean Development Mechanism, the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, and Kevin Conrad’s Coalition for Rainforest Nations.

Stop flying!

Biofuelwatch’s briefing ends as follows:

The time for pretending that forests in the tropics can clean up our pollution or that biofuels are a solution is long past. Air travel “business as usual” is incompatible with stabilising our climate. Real and effective solutions are urgently needed.

The philosopher Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, describes climate action as “one of the great moral challenges of the 21st century, perhaps the greatest moral challenge. It’s a terrible thing that we’re doing ethically. If we’re not acting, we are endangering people.”

There are a couple of important things that we can do as individuals to reduce our carbon footprint. One is to eat less meat (or even better, go vegan), another is to fly less (or even better, stop flying).

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