Are we finally about to get a global agreement on aviation emissions?

David Hodgkinson, University of Western Australia and Rebecca Johnston, University of Western Australia

Tomorrow, delegates from more than 190 nations will begin an 11-day meeting in Montreal to determine the final form of a scheme to reduce greenhouse emissions from the aviation industry.

The meeting – the latest in a series of three-yearly summits held by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the United Nations agency tasked with reducing aviation emissions – is poised to decide on a scheme that would ultimately make it mandatory for most airlines from member countries to buy carbon offsets for their flights.

The resolution would fill a key gap in global climate policy. The Paris climate agreement, brokered last December, makes no mention of aviation emissions, despite having featured these in earlier drafts.

Earlier this month, the ICAO Council issued the final draft of a resolution text to be considered – and, presumably, after some debate, approved – at the Montreal meeting.

In its current form, questions will be raised over the scheme’s effectiveness, not least because it won’t become mandatory until 2027 – and even then not for all carriers. But these loopholes make it more likely that the plan will be adopted.

Mandatory offsetting (in the future)

The planned carbon offsetting scheme set out in the draft resolution would begin with a pilot phase running from 2021 to 2023, involving states that have volunteered to participate. These states will have some flexibility in determining the basis of their aircraft operators’ offsets.

The purpose of this pilot phase is not really clear, and some aviation industry organisations, such as the Air Transport Action Group, regard it as unnecessary.

A first “formal” phase from 2024 to 2026 would apply to states that voluntarily participate in the pilot phase, and again would offset with reference to options in the resolution text. The main difference between the pilot and first phases is that, for the pilot phase, states can determine the applicable baseline emissions year.

A second, mandatory phase would only operate from 2027 to 2035 and would exempt the least developed countries and those with the smallest proportion of international air travel.

There are also exemptions based on the routes themselves. While the rules would apply to all flights between countries covered by the offsetting requirements, they will not apply to flights that take off or land in a non-member state.

Offsetting the issue

Then there are the well-publicised problems with the whole concept of carbon offsetting. Most countries and groups of countries (and ICAO is a group of countries) have ignored offsets in favour of mechanisms such as emissions trading schemes or carbon taxation – and with good reason.

Offsets, which by definition simply move emissions from one source to another, have little net effect on emissions. As such, offsets could be viewed as a diversion from regulations that genuinely encourage emissions reduction, such as carbon pricing. The Paris Agreement does not directly rely on offsets because all governments recognise that it’s collective, substantive action that counts.

What is really needed is a policy that motivates major industrial sectors – aviation included – to cut emissions and use resources more efficiently. Market-based mechanisms offer the best way to apply the price pressure needed to drive such a change.

The question in designing any market-based mechanism is whether to base it on quantity or price. A quantity-based instrument is an ETS, the most common example of which is a cap-and-trade system; a price-based instrument is a carbon tax.

ICAO has chosen neither of these options. Instead, it has chosen a system of voluntary and then mandatory carbon offsets, with all their attendant problems.

Other issues

An analysis by Carbon Brief has found that even if the aviation industry meets all of its emissions targets, by 2050 it will still have consumed 12% of the global carbon budget for keeping warming to 1.5℃. This could increase to as much as 27% if the industry misses its targets.

Meanwhile, airlines estimate that air travel will grow by an average of almost 5% each year until 2034, in an industry where low-carbon alternatives are difficult to find.

It is perhaps good news, then, that three weeks ago 49 states indicated they were willing to opt into the ICAO’s offsetting scheme in its earliest phase. The following week, in a joint statement, the European Union, Mexico and the Marshall Islands said they would join the scheme. And at G20 talks earlier this month, China and the US offered support.

Brazil, one of the fastest-growing aviation markets, said, however, that it will not join until the mandatory scheme begins in 2027.

Notwithstanding substantive draft texts prepared before the assembly, there is still plenty of negotiating to do before we know its final shape. And despite the pitfalls of carbon offsetting and some difficulty with integrating the scheme with the Paris process, a resolution at the meeting would be a step forward (to be followed by further steps and leaps) for an industry with emissions roughly equal to those of the entire nation of South Korea.

The authors will be attending the 39th ICAO Assembly in Montreal.

The Conversation

David Hodgkinson, Associate Professor, University of Western Australia and Rebecca Johnston, Faculty of Law, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Discussing the ‘success’ of limiting aviation emissions is just hot air

David Hodgkinson, University of Western Australia

There are hundreds and hundreds of side events across the two weeks of the UN climate conference here in Paris. It’s often hard to choose between them. Choosing to attend the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) side event on aircraft emissions on Wednesday evening was made easier by virtue of it being the only dedicated event dealing with such emissions at the whole conference.

Notwithstanding that, there’s also a significant UN conference next year at which (so it’s said) all states will agree to the parameters of a market-based mechanism – presumably an emissions trading scheme – to address the aviation emissions problem.

Aviation emissions are currently unregulated. ICAO is the UN agency tasked under the UNFCCC to deal with the aviation’s emissions problem. I almost wished I hadn’t gone to the aviation side event.

The flyer stated that the side event would “highlight ICAO’s expectations for COP21 and will provide concrete insights into ICAO’s successful strategy and initiatives to assist the development and implementation of states’ action plans to reduce aviation emissions”.

Further, the focus was on ICAO’s “achievements and joint initiatives with other UN bodies and the aviation industry on technical, operational and market-based measures”.

So I was forewarned.

In his introductory speech, Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu, President of the Council of ICAO, referred to ICAO’s “leadership in reducing [aviation] emissions” and its “tremendous efforts” in this regard, including the development of sustainable fuels and emissions reductions through improvements in air traffic management.

Subsequent speakers, including a representative from the Air Transport Action Group, referred to “successful efforts” to address the level of aviation emissions (remember that aviation emissions are largely unregulated and are increasing, in contrast with many other industry sectors) and the necessity of ICAO as the organisation through which the problem should be resolved.

References were also made to cooperation among a range of aviation entities in order to enable thousands of flights to operate on a daily basis – presumably some sort of reference to cooperation either (a) being at the ready to help address the emissions problem, or (b) already being utilised.

The problem is that ICAO has not addressed the aviation emissions problem – and this is what COP21 didn’t hear about (among other things). Note the following:

  • At ICAO’s triennial assembly in 2013, its member states agreed to proceed with a roadmap towards a decision to be taken in 2016 for implementation in 2020 – effectively, an agreement to agree, and nothing more.

  • Air travel continues to grow by up to 4-5% on a sustained basis each year.

  • If the aviation industry was a country, it would be ranked seventh in the world for carbon emissions, between Germany and South Korea.

  • According to UN estimates, total aviation emissions will be anywhere between 290% and 667% above 2006 levels by 2050, assuming no switch to alternative fuels.

Does that sound like “successful efforts” to address the level of aviation emissions?

Rebecca Johnston contributed reporting for this blog post.

The Conversation

David Hodgkinson, Associate Professor, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Aviation has an emissions problem, and COP 21 won’t solve it

David Hodgkinson, University of Western Australia

The aviation emissions problem is a significant one. Aviation is a growing source of emissions, and those emissions are largely unregulated. Emissions from aviation are increasing against a background of decreasing emissions (or, at least, emissions regulation) from many other industry sectors.

If global aviation was a country, its emissions would be ranked about seventh in the world, between Germany and South Korea on CO₂ emissions alone. Put another way, aviation’s contribution to worldwide annual emissions could be as high as 8%.

And the International Civil Aviation Organization forecasts significant further emissions growth: against a 2006 baseline a 63-83% increase by 2020 is expected, and a 290-667% increase by 2050 (without accounting for more use of biofuels). UN action on aviation emissions so far: no COP involvement.

Under the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), developed-state parties to the Protocol (including Australia) ‘shall pursue limitation or reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases … from aviation … working through the International Civil Aviation Organization’ (ICAO).

In other words, aviation is excluded from (to date) the world’s primary climate change instruments. It leaves the aviation emissions problem up to ICAO, a UN agency.

At ICAO’s triennial assembly in 2013, an agreement was reached to proceed with a roadmap towards a decision to be taken in 2016 for implementation in 2020.

ICAO resolved to make a recommendation on a global scheme, including a means to take into account the ‘special circumstances and respective capabilities’ of different nations, and the mechanisms for the implementation of such a scheme from 2020 as part of a basket of measures. These include operational improvements and development of sustainable alternative fuels.

It is an agreement to agree. If everything goes to plan, from 2020 we might see a global market-based mechanism – presumably an emissions trading scheme, although a (non-fuel) tax can’t be ruled out – covering global aviation.

But that outcome is far from guaranteed. In effect, states have agreed to agree, and to keep talking at their next major meeting next year – and nothing more.

COP 21 – aviation won’t get off the ground

Given that ICAO is tasked with addressing the aviation emissions problem, aviation is most interesting in terms of references to it in successive draft versions of the COP 21 negotiating text and related documents.

The negotiating text for the agreement to be finalised in Paris in December stood at 90 pages after the UNFCCC Bonn meeting in August and September. It was essentially a compilation of state parties’ proposals – it wasn’t really negotiated. This text was subsequently reduced to just 20 pages in a ‘non-paper’ note dated 5 October 2015 but has now expanded to 51 pages as a result of the 19-23 October Bonn UNFCCC meeting.

In that 5 October draft note aviation was excluded. In the latest draft negotiating text (from the Bonn working group dated 23 October) – Article 3, ‘Mitigation,’ clause 19 – aviation is definitely included. Unsurprisingly, the clause – as expected – refers to ICAO as the appropriate UN agency to deal with the aviation emissions problem.

The only real uncertainty for aviation emissions at COP 21 is whether the words “shall” or “should” (which currently appear in square brackets in the negotiating text) or some other word will be used in relation to reduction of aviation emissions.

The Conversation

David Hodgkinson, Associate Professor, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Desert farms could power flight with sunshine and seawater

John Mathews

The aviation industry is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2011 aviation contributed around 3% of Australia’s emissions. Despite improvements in efficiency, global aviation emissions are expected to grow 70% by 2020 from 2005. While the industry is seeking new renewable fuel sources, growing biofuels takes up valuable land and water that could be otherwise used to grow food.

But what if you could grow biofuels on land nobody wants, using just seawater and sunlight, and produce food at the same time?

That’s just what a new project in Abu Dhabi is seeking to do. The Integrated Seawater Energy and Agriculture System, or ISEAS, will grow sustainable food and aviation fuel in the desert, using seawater and sunshine, in a way that is eminently transferable to similar arid regions around the world.

The project was announced in January 2015 and is now under construction.

So, how does the project solve the biggest environmental problems?

A triple dilemma

Energy, water and food problems frequently compound each other, each making the others more difficult to resolve.

Examples abound: think of wasteful irrigation coming up against water limits and threatening reductions in food production. But there are some projects that turn the issue around and bring water, energy and food issues into positive relations, each strengthening the others.

One example of this is the Sundrop Farms project in South Australia, on which I previously wrote on The Conversation, where abundant sunshine and seawater are used to produce electric power and fresh water to cultivate greenhouse crops like tomatoes.

The Sundrop Farms project is moving ahead, and has won substantial financial support from the global venture capital firm KKR in addition to its earlier support from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, as well as a contract to supply fresh produce to supermarket chain Coles over the next ten years.

The Abu Dhabi project is even more ambitious and is called “seawater farming”. It involves the use of salt-tolerant plants like mangroves and the oil-rich Salicornia as well as aquaculture of seafood such as shrimps and fish.

Salicornia is a salt-loving plant that doesn’t mind getting wet.
Cristiano Cani/Flickr, CC BY

The project was developed through the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium in Abu Dhabi. It involves as partners the airline Etihad Airways, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (from the UAE), as well as corporate giants Boeing, General Electric and UOP Honeywell. These corporations provide the funding and a potentially (vast) market.

The idea is to rapidly scale up various options for securing the biomass and complementing it with associated activities to generate a closed loop operation.

How does it work?

First, seawater is used in aquaculture ponds, where (2) fish and/or shrimp varieties can be grown (= food). Then (3) the wastewater from the aquaculture, which is rich in organic nutrients, is used to irrigate a salt-tolerant crop of Salicornia.

This crop is harvested (4) and the oil extracted from the seeds (= aviation biofuel). Water is then drained from the salt-tolerant crops (5) and fed into a mangrove wetland, where it is naturally purified and carbon can be sequestered (6).

Outside this sequence there is solar energy input to drive the crop production and energy production needed for pumping.

A chart of the process is shown here:


Solving complex problems

The project solves the problem of waste disposal with fish farming (aquaculture) by channelling the organic wastes as irrigation to act as fertiliser for the cultivation of the Salicornia plants. The Salicornia plants themselves (known as halophytes, or salt-resistant species) need only the seawater and grow on arid land.

The project eliminates the problem with most biofuels that they are perceived as taking away water and arable land that could be used for food production. Instead the Abu Dhabi project produces fuel and food and recycles everything.

The current pilot farm is entirely closed-loop, with the seawater drawn originally from the ocean passing through the various stages and finally fed to mangrove plantations. The water is filtered through the mangroves, extracting the final nutrients, and the water can either be fed back to the ocean or recycled to the fish farms. All energy used (such as for pumping the water) is generated with a solar array – so there is no fossil fuel input at all.

The project is achieving remarkable success because it is backed financially by large players – Etihad itself as the principal airline, the Masdar Institute of S&T, and corporate giants like Boeing.

The project will scale up quickly. The pilot project is a plant covering 2 hectares, but in three years it is expected to grow to a 200 ha demonstration scale involving around 140 ha for the Salicornia cultivation, 30 ha for the aquaculture and 20 ha or more for the mangrove plantation.

Could Australia do the same?

Australia is a country with vast arid areas, copious quantities of seawater and sunshine – all the ingredients needed for a similar solar biofuel and food project.

It has a national air carrier in Qantas that has already experimented with various kinds of aviation biofuels. It has a national R&D organization in CSIRO that could organize such a project.

Australia has long experience in development of agricultural models that can cope with high salinity levels. There is a strong research tradition cultivated in West Australia with the CRC for Plant-based Management of Dryland Salinity and its successor the Future Farm Industries CRC – which had to close its doors in mid-2014 for lack of continued support.

Such a project would produce food, both for domestic consumption and export; it would produce aviation biofuel and help restore a fuel processing value chain and again a domestic as well as an export product; and it would utilise water in a way that can promote a means of halting desertification and restoring fertility in arid areas. It is a big idea for a big country.

The Conversation

John Mathews is Professor of Strategic Management, Macquarie Graduate School of Management at Macquarie University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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