A milestone for global aviation? Or a smokescreen from a sector that doesn’t want to go green fast enough? ICAO, the UN organization for civil aviation, concluded an ambiguous agreement last week on making air traffic more sustainable. At its triennial meeting in Montreal , members agreed that carbon neutral flying is the global goal . At the same time, ICAO severely watered down its only instrument to tackle the emission of harmful substances worldwide. Aviation is now responsible for about 3 percent of global CO 2 emissions. That share will increase in the coming years , especially as air traffic increases, especially outside Europe and North America. Aviation is also much less advanced with greening (electricity, hydrogen) than road and rail transport. Finally, there are the harmful effects of other greenhouse gases. This ‘non-CO 2 effect’ also contributes strongly to climate change, but is often ignored by airlines and policy makers. Dutch ambitions In Canada, the 193 ICAO member states agreed that international aviation must fly climate neutral (‘net zero’) by 2050. Last year, the airlines set a similar goal. “It is very good news that ICAO has decided to reduce CO 2 emissions to net zero by 2050,” said Minister Mark Harbers (Infrastructure and Water Management, VVD) through his spokesperson. Harbers was at the ICAO summit on September 27 and 28. “This also ties in with the Dutch ambitions for aviation, and those of the EU,” says Harbers. Among other things, the cabinet wants to shrink at Schiphol in order to reduce noise pollution and emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and particulate matter. The Netherlands also levies more tax on airline tickets. “This is a historic result,” said Harbers. “There is still a lot to be worked out in the coming years, but this is an important first step.” Compromise European Commissioner Adina Valean (Transport) was moderately positive. “A single, global goal for an international industry like aviation provides security for the industry, investors and countries involved.” However, the Commission had come to Montreal with more ambitious goals. Making compromises is simply part of negotiations, a spokesperson said a few days after the agreement. “The EU will continue to play a leading role and also wants to support other countries in their efforts to make aviation more sustainable.” It was still exciting whether the year 2050 would be in the final text. China, India and also Russia – which has been expelled from ICAO’s board because of the invasion of Ukraine – would rather not be ‘net zero’ until 2060 or 2070. They fear that the growth of their domestic aviation and their national economy will stagnate. by climate measures. Less compensation ICAO does not know how aviation should achieve the climate goals. The UN organization itself has hardly any means to enforce measures. In Montreal, ICAO even had its only instrument that exists worldwide to force airlines, airports and passengers to reduce their emissions. Corsia is calling that system: Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation . Before that, aviation agreed three years ago that international growth from 2021 may only be climate neutral. Airlines have to compensate their CO 2 emissions within a few years as soon as they exceed a certain calibration value. It is precisely that benchmark that has now been changed in such a way that aviation has to compensate less. The European nature and environmental organization Transport & Environment (T&E) has already calculated that from 2030 travelers under Corsia would have to pay an additional EUR 2.40 for a ticket from Europe to North America. Far too little, according to T&E. The conditions that ICAO has now agreed to reduce that surcharge once more: ‘climate neutral’ flying from Amsterdam to New York will only cost 1.70 euros extra. The surcharge is used to ‘buy off’ emissions. In other words: compensate for a flight by planting a tree. Also read: Book a ticket, plant a tree? It’s not that simple Forest fires CO 2 compensation has been under fire for some time; it makes little sense, critics say. Trees are cut down or fall prey to forest fires and diseases. “European airlines are misleading passengers with claims that they can fly guilt-free as long as they offset emissions,” Carbon Market Watch said Monday. This Brussels environmental organization had the compensation programs of eight major airlines in Europe investigated. Initiatives from Air France, British Airways, easyJet, KLM, Lufthansa, Ryanair, SAS and Wizz Air were examined. Together they accounted for half of the CO 2 emissions from European aviation in 2019. According to Carbon Market Watch, most carriers assume “cheap, little transparent and vulnerable forestry projects” with little or no guarantees that emissions will be offset for a longer period of time. The organization wants the EU to oblige companies to be transparent about this. In addition, they must stop ‘misleading advertisements’ for ‘carbon neutral’ flights. In the Netherlands, the organization Fossielvrij NL went to court to have KLM stop with “misleading advertisements about sustainable flying”. Smokescreen According to Transport & Environment, the new ICAO agreements mean that only 22 percent of international aviation emissions will be offset by 2030. “Let’s not pretend that a non-binding target will bring aviation to zero emissions,” said Jo Dardenne of T&E. “If countries and companies take these goals seriously, they must stop opposing the EU and its plans to price carbon emissions.” Also read: No more combustion engine in cars, end of luxury position for aviation; these are the EU’s climate plans The Commission wants to expand the EU ETS emissions trading system for aviation. Airlines have to buy – or go green – emission rights if they want to emit more. Expansion of the EU ETS is part of the climate plan ‘Fit for 55’ of European Commissioner Frans Timmermans. He also wants to tax kerosene and require aircraft to mix in more sustainable kerosene ( sustainable aviation fuel , SAF). The airline companies are willing to use more SAF. In principle, this fuel can be used in the current aircraft without technical modifications. But SAF is expensive and limited availability. The airlines also emphasize that newer aircraft are cleaner and quieter anyway. Dardenne: “The ICAO decision shows that the organization continues to adapt its measures to benefit industry and not the climate. Countries, especially the EU, need to see through this smokescreen and move forward with real green measures.” A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 14, 2022