More climate protection in air transport

Up to now, no limits or caps have been put on the climate-damaging emissions arising from international aviation. Global aviation emissions are rising sharply by four or five percent a year yet effective mechanisms to curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from international aviation are lacking. It is generally accepted that the data currently collected on the GHG emissions of the aviation sector only reflect part of its greenhouse effect; the effect of nitrogen oxides and water vapour in the atmosphere have not yet been fully quantified. When the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, it was decided that international air transport – like maritime transport – would not be covered.

In order to limit the GHG emissions of the aviation sector, the EU nevertheless adopted legislation in 2008 to integrate aviation in the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) from 2012 onwards. But there has been large opposition to this step; several states agreed on possible counter-measures to the EU regulation in the Moscow Declaration of 2012. In response, the scope of aviation’s inclusion in the EU ETS was reduced, up to 2016, to flights within and between the states participating in the EU ETS.

In 2012 the High-Level Group on International Aviation and Climate Change (HGCC) was also formed. It was established by the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) and is geared to advancing the implementation of market-based instruments. Three proposals for a market-based mechanism are currently being further elaborated. The ICAO is to decide on concrete measures – including efficiency standards – by 2016.

Development of a global offset scheme

On behalf of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB), experts at Oeko-Institut have designed the main features that a global offset scheme for the aviation sector could have. In the proposed scheme, emission rights are not traded, but rather the emissions of air transport above the reduction target are compensated by offsets, i.e. emission reduction credits. This means that there would be no limit on the amount of CO2 emitted and the rights to emit CO2 would not be bought or sold. Rather, airlines would have to offset emissions through compensation measures that can be derived from other sectors.

The proposed scheme – entitled the Aviation Carbon Offset Scheme (ACOS) – can be applied on a global scale, takes into account the specific situation and respective capabilities of the different states and provides direct incentives to reduce emissions in air transport. The ACOS proposal provides that the aircraft operators are responsible for buying the offsets as they have full control over the sector’s emission levels. The total yearly quantity of offsets is to be determined by an overarching organization. All flight routes should be included in the scheme from the beginning, but the number of offsets to be acquired should be differentiated according to country-specific indicators. In this way, a flight from one industrialised country to another industrialised country would require a higher amount of offset credits to be bought than is the case for a flight of the same length carried out between two developing countries.

The environmental integrity of the scheme is ensured by the high quality of the offsets. So aircraft operators should only be able to use offsets which are coming on to the market from 2020 onwards and which meet high standards. With a carbon offset scheme of this kind, carbon-neutral growth should be realized in the air transport sector from 2020. Experts at Oeko-Institut will accompany the decision-making process on behalf of the BMUB and further elaborate the ACOS scheme and support it with data.

A global market-based measure despite opposition

If one keeps sight of the fact that GHG emissions of aviation are increasing by four to five percent per year, it becomes clear that reduction measures in the aviation sector are essential. Efficiency improvements and the use of biofuel are a mere drop in the ocean in this respect.

A common climate roadmap in the aviation sector is an ambitious goal and the opposition to it is great: US-American aircraft operators put the question of whether the integration of air transport in the EU ETS is legally permissible before the European Court of Justice but the latter confirmed that the directive was permitted by law.

Despite all the difficulties, experts at Oeko-Institut are calling for an instrument which addresses global aviation emissions. An offset scheme would increase awareness about the reduction of GHG emissions among aircraft operators and promote carbon offset projects; however, in Oeko-Institut's view, this is only the first step and should be further built upon in the long term.