Flying Is Bad for Our Planet. Why Do You Have to Fly Cleaner?
Many of us have the luxury of spending a few weeks at the end of the year exploring far off places or making it home to see family.
But in total only 18% of people have ever flown. This is changing fast.
Since 2009 the amount of international flights breaks records year after year. Budget carriers like Ryanair and EasyJet facilitate spontaneous vacations to far-off places. In the next decade the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) estimates the number of flyers to double to 7.8b annually, with market center shifting from the United States to China.
With this activity so normalized it’s easy to forget taking a plane raises your carbon emissions faster than any other single thing you can do.
No other human act increases individual carbon emissions as quickly as air travel.
Around the world airplanes consume an average of 114 thousand barrels of fuel per day with aviation contributing around 2 percent of man-made CO2 emissions, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). But when you account for other greenhouse gases emitted like sulfur, particles, and nitrogen oxides and their effect on radiative forcing, that jumps to around 5%.
Typically, governments use emissions standards and tax increases to curb pollution from cars and trains. National penalties spurred innovation in these industries, which is why we are seeing a flux of lightweight vehicles powered by renewables, from Tesla to Teo.
The One Apart
But the 1994 Chicago Convention set an international precedent to exempt aviation fuel from any excise duty. This and several other bilateral service agreements ensure aviation would be kept artificially cheap to boost the young post WW2 industry.
Aviation has mostly kept this perk.
Europe’s 2003 Energy Taxation Directive allows EU states to continue not taxing jet fuel tax on domestic, inter and extra-European flights. Only the Netherlands has placed taxes on domestic flight fuel, though environmental think tanks push for fuel taxation on all intra-EU flights.
Those against this tax argue it would drive “tankering,” where aircrafts carry the greatest volume of fuel possible and land outside the EU to avoid paying taxes. Efforts to avoid this tax would only increase greenhouse gas emissions.
Regulating aviation is tricky because the industry serves a global market, so any solution must be an international one.
In the 1997 Kyoto Protocol aviation was all but excluded besides a vague addendum stating developed countries should limit and reduce greenhouse gases emissions from aviation.
The first 15 years after this agreement saw no binding emissions targets from the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization. Instead, aviation grew faster than any other mode of transport, with global CO2 emissions up 4.3% per year.
Governments began to take action into their own hands. In 2012 aviation was included in the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), a carbon market for high emitting industries. All inter-European flights are folded into this schema, despite protests from the US and China.
COP21 put no binding constraints on the aviation industry to cut emissions, but instead encouraged countries to keep track of emissions and enforce their own reduction policies.
Industry Steps Up
In 2016 the ICAO introduced Carbon Offsetting Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). Flights in 2019-2020 will be monitored for their CO2 emissions and CORSIA will use their average as a baseline.
Any CO2 emissions over this baseline will need to be offset. As of January 1, 2021 states can partake voluntarily, but by 2027 it will become industry standard.
The problem is CORSIA only proposes to reduce aviation’s carbon balance artificially– aviation is not capping emissions by 2027. CORSIA allows aviation emissions to exceed carbon budgets then asks offending airlines to pay a carbon penalty.
Environmental groups like
Carbon Brief and Transport and Environment have stated the success of CORSIA depends on the decided carbon offset regulations. A paper published by Nature Climate Change outlines this necessity as well.
Some criteria for offsets have already been agreed upon but questions still remain. There’s disagreement on what offset credits should be included and what “vintage and timeframe” limits are placed on purchases, with different states vying for politically advantageous features.
ICAO developed a committee, the Technical Advisory Body to finalize offset criteria and ensure the CORSIA process is transparent and credible. The question of who should determine the eligibility of offset projects, the ICAO or states, also remains undecided.
Not Enough Emphasis on Alternative Jet Fuels
Cleaner jet fuel offers the biggest potential for in-sector decarbonization. CORSIA allows airlines to use cleaner jet fuels to count against their CO2 emissions of a given year and ICAO has consulted with involved countries to develop alternative fuel standards.
One much-critiqued rule included clean oil under this “lower carbon aviation fuel” category as long as there was a 10% reduction in life cycle assessment compared to “Jet A.” It was backed by Saudi Arabia.
It’s clear there needs to be higher sustainability standards for alternative fuels under CORSIA.
As many other environmental groups are calling for, the scheme needs to ensure alternative fuels used protect against indirect land use, competition with food and feed, and labour rights.
CORSIA is meant as a temporary offsetting scheme to cap emissions while development for alternative fuels ramps up. Initially, alternative jet fuels were a mandatory part of the CORSIA proposal, but now there’s less of an incentive to adopt them. So, CORSIA’s long-term goal of transitioning to alternative jet fuel relies on states to encourage alternative jet fuel production and usage through national policies.
It’s well recognized that CORSIA, while helping to mitigate some carbon emissions, will not prevent aviation from “exceeding its proportional share of less than a two degree carbon budget before 2035.”
Flightnook responds to this framework by encouraging passengers to purchase cleaner jet fuels, which cover your carbon emissions as a traveller and support cleaner energy.
Travel the World Without Warming It
Aviation is a global business which makes any regulatory framework fundamentally more complex. Governments will not act until their populations become aware of the environmental harm caused by air transportation.
But noise being made on the ground, like the Swedish hashtag #flygskam demonstrates that people are beginning recognize flying’s outsized climate impact and pressure is starting to shift.
Aviation is growing faster than any other mode of transport and outside of Europe, national governments are not pressuring airlines to change, the way they do automotive or rail industries.
CORSIA alone will not get emissions levels low enough to make Paris COP21 goals.
Think of all the positive choices and changes you make everyday to reduce your carbon emissions. Now think of how the cumulative climate impact of those choices are entirely wiped out by a roundtrip flight.
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