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Published on Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Why airline carbon offsets don't work

Justin Francis, co-founder of Responsible Travel, explains why carbon offsets won't work for aviation and why the Government needs to move forward with a Green Flying Duty.

"We have just 11 years to make the changes necessary to limit an increase in global warming to just 1.5 °C. By 2030 our worldwide CO2 emissions need to be at least 55% of 2017 levels. And yet the aviation industry, which if it were its own country would be the 7th largest emitter of CO2 in the world, drags woefully behind. International aviation is not included in states' action plans under the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Climate Agreement - international shipping also gets a free pass - and it has been left to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to take responsibility.

We're not saying that airlines are doing nothing. Using less fuel, and as a result causing fewer emissions, makes huge economic sense, so there has been heavy investment in reducing weight and making flights more efficient. Couple this with the huge tax break enjoyed by airlines as a result of the tax exemptions on international aviation fuel - to the tune of £6.4 billion per year in the UK once you count Air Passenger Duty - and these efficiencies translate into cheaper flight prices and subsequently an increase in the number flights being taken. Environmental benefits have been effectively cancelled out.

The ICAO will be launching its solution - the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) - in 2021. However, we believe the ambition of this project isn't enough. CORSIA aims to keep emission levels static from 2020, rather than addressing the need for levels to drop significantly by 2030. It doesn't include domestic flights - responsible for around 40% of carbon emissions - and its first phase is voluntary. While 78 countries (76% of global aviation activity) have signed up, significantly Brazil, China, India and Russia haven't. Aviation activity in these huge countries is some of the fastest-growing in the world.

CORSIA is essentially a carbon offset scheme and there is evidence to show these just don't work (see video below). They embody everything that is wrong with our approach to climate change to date; a passing-the-buck of moral responsibility, the view that we can just pay our way out while growth from polluting industries and technologies can perpetuate unabated. A 2017 EU study of carbon offset schemes found that 85% of offset projects under the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) had failed to reduce emissions. With aviation emissions set to increase by 300-700% by 2050 we clearly need to find another route.

Rapid and decisive change needs to happen - not in years, but in months. There is a promising future for electric aviation - just look at what is happening in the electric car industry - with easyJet hoping to fly electric planes on some routes by 2027, and the Norwegian Government committing to making all short haul flights electric by 2040. However, at the current level of funding widespread electric flight won't be commercially viable for decades - too late for our 2030 targets. In the meantime our only option is to significantly reduce the demand for flights globally while simultaneously investing heavily in decarbonising aviation. This is what our Green Flying Duty - part of our newly-launched manifesto for the future of tourism - intends to do.

We're calling on the UK government to lead the way in extending and reforming existing Air Passenger Duty - and ring-fencing the revenue for investment in research and development in electric aviation.

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