Contributed by Robert Lyman 2019. Lyman’s bio can be read here.
There is no part of the Canadian and global economies that has escaped the attention of those who believe that humans are causing catastrophic global warming and that absolutely everything must by done to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. An increasing aspect of their attention, so far little covered by the Canadian media, is the campaign to reduce emissions from aviation. That may change in the next few years.
Globally, passenger and freight-related aviation accounts for about 2.5 % of GHG emissions. The percentage is higher in the wealthier, more industrialized countries. Aircraft are entirely dependent on oil-based fuels, and jet fuel consumed in 2018 totaled 12.8 quadrillion British Thermal Units (Btu) of energy, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). The EIA’s most recent International Energy Outlook projects that world jet fuel consumption will grow to 17.7 Btu in 2030 and 29.4 Btu in 2050, making it one of the fastest growing sources of GHG emissions. To place that in context, by 2050 aviation may have risen to 3.5 % of global GHG emissions.
This prospect has gained great attention in the European Union. In Sweden, the outrage is so great that many people have adopted a new and interesting GHG mitigation technique. It is called “flight shaming”, the practice of naming and publicly shaming high profile individuals and companies that, from the perspective of climate alarm, have unduly and unnecessarily used aircraft to travel or to move freight. Flight shaming has become so widespread in Europe that it is adversely affecting the airlines and has increasingly shaped public policy. The German Aviation Association recently, and facetiously, examined a proposal to scrap all internal German flights if the national rail operator would facilitate an equally high speed service on the same routes.
The European Union has, since 2012, adopted a more costly alternative to shaming. Under the European Emissions Trading System (ETS), all airlines operating in Europe are required to monitor, report and verify their carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, and to obtain and surrender allowances against those emissions, covering a certain level of their emissions from their flights per year. In effect, by forcing airlines to buy emissions offsets, the EU has imposed a cost similar to a carbon dioxide tax. This forces airlines either to reduce emissions from flight operations (where possible) or to raise fares. The higher fares are thus expected to be the mechanism for driving down aircraft usage.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in October 2016 agreed on a Resolution (supported by Canada) for a global market-based measure to reduce emissions from international aviation by 2021. The agreed Resolution sets out the objective and key design elements of the proposed global regime, as well as a roadmap for the completion of the work on implementation. The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA, aims to stabilize CO2 emissions at 2020 levels by requiring airlines to “offset” the growth of their emissions after 2020. The offsets would be achieved by having to purchase eligible emission units (i.e. similar to emission permits) in other sectors of the global economy. Although participation in the first phases of the scheme is voluntary for countries, the advocates claim that this will offset around 80% of the emissions above 2020 levels.
Even the supporters of such schemes admit that offset programs are deeply flawed and likely to fail. Offset programs require an ample supply of emission reduction projects from which to buy the offset permits, a system of accounting and verification that will avoid rackets and scams (like those that have burdened the European ETS), and broad participation so as to avoid giving some airlines major competitive advantages over others. Even if they were to work, the consequences of placing hard caps on the permit-free portion of airlines emissions, in the face of fast-growing air transport demand, would be to drive passenger and freight airfares much, much higher.
It is worthwhile contemplating what full implementation of CORSIA would mean in practice. Table 1 is drawn from data in the EIA International Energy Outlook showing current projection of passenger air travel for selected countries and regions.
Projected Passenger Air Travel (billion revenue-passenger-miles)
From this table one can observe that air passenger travel is projected to rise, not fall, in all regions. In addition, from 2018 to 2040:
• Passenger air travel in the U.S. and Canada is projected to grow in by 49%
• Passenger air travel Europe is projected to grow by 73%
• Passenger air travel in China is projected to grow by 205%
• World passenger air travel is projected to grow by 113%
To avoid a doubling of traffic (or tripling, in the case of China) would require offsets whose costs would easily increase airfares to several multiples of what they are today. The same would be true for air freight, which is especially important in serving the needs of countries and communities that are remote from the main centres of commerce.
One has to wonder whether, in the face of these obstacles, governments in western countries will press ahead with the CORSIA scheme when the developing countries (where all the emissions growth is occurring) almost certainly will not do so. The alternative to a CORSIA-like offset system is to increase domestic taxes, such as carbon dioxide taxes and special aviation-only taxes. Finally, if all else fails, governments might place hard cap restrictions on the growth in flights. This would require an elaborate regulatory system, including the setting of priorities for the allocation of rights to fly or to move freight by air, with all of the uncertainties and discretionary judgments that are part of any regulatory regime.
For Canadians used to travelling across the country for business or escaping to southern destinations for a mid-winter break, climate alarm may soon make them face the “shame”, the cost or the cap. One can only imagine how popular that will be.