Airplane at sunset Airplane at sunset

This is the second in a two-part series on emissions from the global aviation industry. You can find part one of the series here.

While aviation is global in nature, reporting to the IPCC occurs on a national level. This creates problems when it comes to understanding how emissions contribute to climate change. Countries submit figures for domestic and international aviation separately, in part because of a methodological dispute over who should take on the emissions burden in their national greenhouse gas (GHG) reports.

For instance, should emissions from an international flight be split equally between the countries of departure and arrival? What if the majority of the flight occurs over one country, or if the majority of passengers are from another? Or, should the emissions be attributed to the country where the airplane was fueled?

This dual-reporting mechanism means that figures can be downplayed in national communications about transport emissions. In a 2012 report titled Canada’s Action Plan to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Aviation, Ottawa stated that only five percent of transport emissions (or just over one percent of total national emissions) come from aviation. But that figure included only domestic aviation.

In fact, a deeper dive into Canada’s National Inventory Report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change shows that when both domestic and international travel are included, aviation accounts for the equivalent of 11 percent of transport emissions, some 2.7 percent of the country’s total emissions.

Aviation emissions can escape national reporting, a loophole that has helped them appear artificially low at a national level. As domestically-oriented policies try to identify and reduce GHG emissions from the most polluting sectors, aviation risks being ignored.

International cooperation

CORSIA – or the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation – is the global aviation industry’s ambitious plan for addressing climate change. According to the plan, the aviation sector is aiming for carbon-neutral growth from 2020 onwards. It additionally seeks a reduction in net aviation CO2 emissions of 50 percent by 2050, relative to 2005 levels.

The plan not only requires the international community to cooperatively implement new carbon pricing...but it also assumes that carbon offsets really do work.

Although this would be a substantial reduction, the prospects for success are low. Much of CORSIA relies on what it calls a “Global Market-Based Measure” – essentially a global-scale carbon fee that countries would have to agree to. The funds would then go towards offsetting the projected growth in international emissions relative to 2020 levels. The plan not only requires the international community to cooperatively implement new carbon pricing (a policy measure that is already a political wedge in countless industrialized nations), but it also assumes that carbon offsets really do work.

But some believe offsetting is worse than total inaction. Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester, says offsetting is “without scientific legitimacy, is dangerously misleading, and almost certainly contributes to a net increase in the absolute rate of global emissions growth.”

Why? Anderson’s argument is that funds for offset programs are often awarded to projects whose outcomes ought to be taking place anyway – things like renewable energy infrastructure, energy efficiency projects or methane capture. In some instances, it’s not clear that the projects would not have occurred anyway without the offset funding, allowing many individuals to clear their consciences and corporations to market their sustainability measures, all while taking credit for climate actions that should have taken place regardless.

Even if the CORSIA plan reaches its 2050 objective, the sector would still be contributing about the equivalent of 857 megatons of CO2 by that time (about as much as Germany emits today). The aviation industry alone would eat up 12 percent of the global carbon budget in staying within the target of only 1.5 C of warming.

What does the future hold?

In the end, we are left with the challenge of trying to balance the benefits of global aviation (there are many) with the extreme damage caused by the industry. Given the way we live today, it’s hard to imagine a world where aviation doesn’t feature as prominently in both our work and leisure.

But perhaps it’s worth thinking about how to tackle growth in aviation, rather than aviation itself. Ultimately, this means figuring out how to fly less overall, which can be hard to swallow for some. And while the band-aid solutions posed thus far may give the illusion of clear skies ahead, days like July 13 say otherwise.

This piece was guest edited by Tina Knezevic.

Ryan M. Katz-Rosene is an Assistant Professor at the University of Ottawa's School of Political Studies, and serves as Co-President of the Environmental Studies Association of Canada. He lives on an organic farm near Wakefield, Quebec.


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