These meetings could help decide our climate future

Editor’s note: This page was published March 11, 2020. On March 13, the United Nations aviation agency adopted robust provisions to reduce climate pollution from airlines. Read our statement.

This month a group of officials, part of a United Nations agency you’ve probably never heard of, will make decisions that can have a big impact on the climate.

It’s a pivotal moment: What happens now will determine whether the world can meet its goal of cutting climate pollution from aviation.

While the coronavirus has people flying less for now, this pollution can last for centuries. So cutting aviation’s climate footprint is still urgent.

What you need to know

If aviation were a country, it would be one of the world’s top 10 emitters of carbon dioxide.

With tens of thousands of new airplanes expected to fly in the next few decades, greenhouse gas emissions from aviation are expected to triple by 2050, unless we act.

That’s why in 2016 representatives from 191 countries established an approach for cutting emissions.

It’s called CORSIA, short for Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, and it requires airlines to report pollution from all international flights.

Starting next year, airlines flying between countries that have volunteered to join the pilot phase will have to start reducing their emissions, with the initial goal of cutting climate pollution from their operations to 2019-2020 levels, even as air travel expands.

Airlines can reach that goal by cutting their own emissions — burning alternative fuels that emit less carbon dioxide over their life cycles.

Or they can make investments that reduce climate-changing emissions outside of the aviation industry. For instance, they could invest in renewable energy projects or in protecting forests.

Why this moment is so important

This month’s meetings of the U.N. agency dedicated to aviation — the International Civil Aviation Organization — are critical. That's because the agency will decide what kinds of investments (or “offsets”) are OK for the airlines.

Some are pushing for questionable options, including those that could lead to double-counting: An emissions reduction would be counted once by the country that made the cut, and again by an airline that bought that offset.

Those might be cheap, but they won’t protect the climate.

If the U.N. aviation agency is doing its job responsibly, it will demand high-quality investments that actually cut climate pollution, so they really do balance out the emissions from airplanes.

If the agency gets this right, consumers, governments and the public will be able to hold the aviation sector accountable for its responsibility to the climate.

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