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Analysis: aviation emissions - Is offsetting pie in the sky?

The airlines think that offsetting can allow sustainable growth for aviation. Environmentalists disagree

Airlines don’t want to reduce demand


With 2% of global carbon emissions attributed to the aviation sector and dramatic growth in the industry predicted over the next decade, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has devised a four-pillar strategy to achieve carbon-neutral growth from 2020.


It focuses on improved technology, effective operations, efficient infrastructure and economic measuresto manage the industry’s impact on climate change.


Part of this strategy is its carbon-offset programme, which offerspassengers the opportunity to offset the CO2 emissions related to their flights. Seventeen airlines have signed up to the programme, which was launched in 2009, with Kenya Airlines the latest to join in May this year.


“No other global industry sector has set such ambitious goals for emissions reductions, and carbon offsetting is only one measure among many to reduce greenhouse gases,” says Chris Goater, IATA’s corporate communications manager.“It addresses the passenger’s willingness to reduce their carbon footprint and creates several social co-benefits for communities in developing countries where offset projects are located.”


During the booking process, passengers are given the option to offset their emissions with certified carbon credits by investing in UN-certified carbon-reduction projects. These carbon credits are bought from projects generating Certified Emission Reductions issued through the UN Clean Development Mechanism.


Mitigating impact


“Aviation has come under the spotlight over the past decade and calls for it to take its environmental responsibilities seriously have forced its hand,” says aviation expert Simon Michell. “Carbon offsets have a role to play, but they are only a small element of what has become a huge industrial and technological effort to mitigate aviation’s negative impact on the environment.”


Goater admits that there are limits to what aviation can do to reduce CO2 emissions from its own operations. “Increasingly, customers are looking for the opportunity to reduce the environmental impact of their flights. Offsetting is a positive action that can be taken immediately,” he says.


While any positive steps to reduce emissions are welcomed, environmentalists believe that offsetting itself is not the answer.


“Offsetting is a distraction from the real issue of looking at how much we fly,” says Richard Dyer, Friends of the Earth’s transport campaigner. “The plain fact is that we must curb rising aviation emissions and to do that we need policies that manage the demand for flying.”


Vicky Wyatt, head of Greenpeace’s transport campaign, agrees, arguing that any drive to reduce emissions from aviation needs to “concentrate on delivering real cuts, rather than trading”. And this means reducing demand for air travel.


But Goater argues this is unrealistic. “Retreating from economic progress through denying opportunities for air travel is not a solution to the world’s problems,” he says. “The climate challenge can be tackled through new technology and innovative ideas.”


Passenger participation in the programme is voluntary and the IATA is not currently aware that any airline intends to make the scheme compulsory.


Michell says that here is no reason why a voluntary scheme should not substantially contribute to the overall effort in some way. “Legislation and regulation is not the answer to every question. IATA holds a very significant place in the aviation industry and it has the scope to produce serious momentum.”  


The sceptics, however, are not convinced.


“The aviation industry wants to continue growing. That is, after all, what all businesses want to do,” says Dr Doug Parr, Greenpeace’s chief scientist. Parr argues that there is a direct conflict with climate change when there is no low- or zero-carbon option for the business. “Offsetting is not a solution to climate change but a short-term palliative.”

 

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