The United Nations last week took a major step toward reducing climate pollution from aviation—even as the airline industry reels from the economic fallout of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
At issue are rules released Friday by the International Civil Aviation Organization, an independent U.N. body tasked with regulating the sector.
The rules govern the implementation of the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, known as CORSIA.
While it sounds complicated, CORSIA is simply a mechanism that allows airlines to purchase carbon offsets. It’s aimed at helping the airline industry meet a goal of carbon-neutral growth from 2020 onward, and its pilot phase is set to last from 2021 to 2023.
Essentially, carbon offsets are certificates that help people or companies mitigate their carbon emissions by supporting projects that reduce emissions elsewhere in the world. Projects often involve planting trees, preventing deforestation, installing solar panels or handing out cleaner-burning cookstoves.
Under the new rules, airlines will be allowed to purchase carbon offsets from several approved programs, including the American Carbon Registry, the Gold Standard and the Verified Carbon Standard Program.
Within these approved programs, projects only would be eligible if their emissions reductions occurred between Jan. 1, 2016, and Dec. 31, 2020.
That’s in line with a recent analysis by Ecosystems Marketplace, which found that carbon markets are well-positioned to meet demand for credits generated between 2016 and 2020.
Environmental groups praised ICAO for releasing the new rules despite the spread of COVID-19, caused by the coronavirus, which has forced the United Nations to cancel or delay other events focused on climate change (Climatewire, March 12).
“At a time of extreme stress for the industry, [ICAO] has stood by its commitment to grapple with the climate crisis even as it deals with the immediate tragedy of COVID-19. That is a demonstration of real leadership,” Annie Petsonk, international counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement Friday.
“The Council’s decision today sends a signal that when we get to the other side of the gut-punch that COVID-19 is delivering to families, communities and the whole travel sector, nations will move forward to meet the climate challenge,” she added.
Brad Schallert, deputy director of international climate cooperation at the World Wildlife Fund, echoed this sentiment.
“Around the world, we are seeing urgent and unprecedented action to the COVID-19 emergency. Today governments at ICAO ... signaled they can continue to address the climate crisis at the same time," he said in a statement Friday.
Still, Schallert said the council should have further limited the amount of credits under the Clean Development Mechanism, which resulted from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and remains the largest carbon offset program in the world.
Environmentalists have questioned the effectiveness of the Clean Development Mechanism in the wake of a 2016 report by the European Commission that found only 7% of carbon offsets in the program led to emissions reductions that would not have happened otherwise (Climatewire, Sept. 10, 2019).
“This decision is far from perfect: the ICAO Council should have set a higher bar,” Schallert said. “Governments could have more severely limited the amount of CDM credits or rejected the program altogether.”
The new rules come as the airline industry continues to see its passenger numbers and shares plummet amid efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19, caused by the coronavirus.
Shares of major U.S. airlines plunged last week after President Trump banned air travel for foreigners from most of Europe to the United States for 30 days.
But they saw a slight uptick Friday as the White House and Congress moved to provide economic assistance to hard-hit industries. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also has signaled that helping the airline industry remains a priority for the administration.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.
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