A Fair COP?

11 Dec, 2023

The annual United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference the ‘Conference of Parties’, or COP28 is now underway in Dubai.

Locating this year’s COP within the wealthy, oil-producing United Arab Emirates (UAE) was always going to be controversial. And having the head of UAE’s national oil & gas company run proceedings has also been a massive issue, with him recently declaring that there was “no science” behind the need to rapidly phase-out fossil fuels.

With the last 27 COPs crucially failing to failing to prevent the inexorable rise of CO2 in our atmosphere, it can be challenging to know whether to engage with this global talking shop, that has historically failed to match its words with action:

Nonetheless, we thought we’d share some of our thinking and positions on ‘progress’ so far at COP, and what we’d like to see from an aviation perspective.

Agreements

What’s been agreed so far? 

Progress has apparently been made with agreements for:

So are we doing enough, and where does aviation fit into the equation?

Clean energy

Tripling renewable energy generation sounds like a massive step, particularly within a decade, and can give us a warm fuzzy feeling that rapid progress is being made. 

Decarbonising our power supply is important. But in many ways it’s the low-hanging fruit of climate action. The electricity grid is far easier to decarbonise than other sectors such as transport, agriculture, buildings, and industry. 

This “agreement” is merely piggy-backing on an uptick in renewable energy installations in recent years as the costs (particularly solar and wind energy) tumbles. 

Importantly, this agreement says nothing whatsoever about burning fossil fuels. It can be tempting to assume that all renewable energy that we generate will replace fossil fuel use, but history has shown that this is demonstrably not the case. 

For instance, global renewable energy generation has tripled in the past (wind energy has tripled since 2014, and solar since 2017) and this progress was accompanied by a global increase in fossil fuels. As a consequence, carbon emissions have continued to rise:

Energy

Renewables have simply added to, rather than displaced fossil fuels. 

This is why agreements to phase-out all fossil fuels on a trajectory consistent with a carbon budget for 1.5°C is essential, and we shouldn’t let a focus on renewable energy distract from this. 

Loss and Damage 

Loss and damage refers to the irreversible costs of extreme weather and slow-onset disasters such as sea level rise, ocean acidification and melting glaciers caused by global heating. It is about holding the biggest fossil fuel polluters liable for the pain and suffering already caused by climate breakdown. Climate finance for loss and damage is considered separately, and in addition to, securing funds for mitigation and adaptation to help developing nations prepare for what is coming. 

The loss and damage in developing countries is already estimated by some studies to be greater than $400bn annually – and expected to rise – so time is of the essence.

In 2009, wealthy nations pledged to “mobilise” $100bn in “climate finance” annually by 2020 to help vulnerable nations deal with climate change. 

This has yet to be delivered, and the latest announcements go nowhere near the levels of finance needing to be delivered to support developing countries. The $700m pledged to loss and damage fund at COP28 covers less than 0.2% of the estimated losses developing countries face each year. 

Where does aviation fit in?

Despite an aircraft appearing surreptitiously in the official COP28 logo, discussion of aviation emissions has been avoided.

This follows a historic tendency stemming from the decision to relegate international aviation emissions to the jurisdiction of ICAO. These emissions are also not included within state ‘Nationally Determined Contribution’ (NDC) submissions. 

However, it can be seen that aviation jet fuel use is driving increased global oil consumption. In June 2023, the International Energy Agency (IEA) projected that “𝘣𝘢𝘴𝘦𝘥 𝘰𝘯 𝘤𝘶𝘳𝘳𝘦𝘯𝘵 𝘨𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘯𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵 𝘱𝘰𝘭𝘪𝘤𝘪𝘦𝘴 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘮𝘢𝘳𝘬𝘦𝘵 𝘵𝘳𝘦𝘯𝘥𝘴”, global oil demand would rise 6% between 2022 and 2028, with the increase “𝘴𝘶𝘱𝘱𝘰𝘳𝘵𝘦𝘥 𝘣𝘺 𝘳𝘰𝘣𝘶𝘴𝘵 𝘥𝘦𝘮𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘱𝘦𝘵𝘳𝘰𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘮𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘭 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝙖𝙫𝙞𝙖𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣 𝘴𝘦𝘤𝘵𝘰𝘳𝘴”.

Indeed, recent undercover filming by Channel 4 has highlighted a Saudi Arabian government plan to artificially raise global oil demand – with a section of its strategy devoted towards increasing aviation demand and related infrastructure.

Increased air traffic growth, if not using fossil fuels, will necessitate huge quantities of alternative energy (biomass or renewable electricity) and this will indirectly prolong the use of fossil fuels. For instance, Safe Landing calculations show that to replace existing levels of jet fuel demand in the UK with electro-fuel/kerosene (e-kerosene) would require almost identical levels of electricity from that consumed by the entire UK electricity grid today. This is two times all UK ‘low-carbon’ power (including nuclear energy), three times all UK ‘renewable energy’ (excluding nuclear), 4 times all UK wind energy, and 5 times all UK nuclear energy: 

This is why levels of aviation growth need to be curbed, via internationally agreed government policies to actively reduce demand, and reduce total jet fuel use.  

Finally, using a global aviation tax to pay for climate finance for the most impacted countries has been proposed at previous COPs, e.g. by the Maldives in 2008, and was proposed again by the ‘Least Developed Countries’ group in the run-up to the most recent COP27 in Egypt. These are the lowest-income countries, who are the most vulnerable to the immediate impacts of climate change. We should feel a moral responsibility to listen to, platform and amplify their demands.

In addition, African political leaders at the ‘Africa Climate Summit’ in September 2023, urged world leadersto rally behind the proposal for a global carbon taxation regime including a carbon tax on fossil fuel trade, maritime transport and aviation, that may also be augmented by a global financial transaction tax“.

What does climate leadership look like? 

As we’ve laid out multiple times to the UK Government. The policies we desperately need for aviation are for governments to:

  • Introduce global and national carbon budgets for aviation consistent with a 1.5°C pathway.
  • Be mindful of the fact that even other apparently less ‘hard-to-abate’ sectors are off track with decarbonisation efforts and therefore don’t have any excess budget that aviation can use.
  • Be mindful of the fact that lack of near-term mitigation policies for aviation non-CO2 emissions will reduce the aviation carbon-equivalent budget further.
  • Spread the aviation budget across the coming decade to produce annual budgets.
  • Allocate the annual aviation budget between countries / airports / airlines. Do so in a way that ensures equity and ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ e.g. a re-allocation of capacity from the Global North countries who currently fly far more often, to the Global South who currently fly far less. This is as advocated for by the International Transport Workers’ Federation.
  • This budget will dictate how much fossil jet fuel can be consumed by airlines operating from each airport that year.

Financial measures can also be used to provide a price signal to travellers, drive down fossil jet fuel use and encourage airlines to operate as efficiently as possible within the given budget.

For instance, applying emissions pricing to all aviation emissions can raise government revenue for loss & damage funds and cross-economy decarbonisation. This could be applied as:

  • a kerosene tax to target carbon emissions
  • an emissions price to target other emissions (e.g. CO2, NOx, contrails)
  • a frequent flyer levy to distribute the financial burden to highest-emitters

Such policies would be socially progressive, as they predominantly target a minority of high-emitters, particularly if funds are used for activities with wide distributed benefits across the population. They also fit the “polluter pays” principle.

However, rather than do this, government leaders are refusing to acknowledge the aviation emissions problem. They are also setting a bad example on the global stage by flying to the conference on private jets. Safe Landing was recently critical of Rishi Sunak, David Cameron and King Charles all flying from the UK to Dubai to attend the conference in individual private jets without even sharing a ride!

Todd Smith, member of Safe Landing said: Mr Sunak and Lord Cameron were “setting an awful example” and “protecting the interests of their rich mates”.

The activist said three in four Britons would not need to change their flying habits to achieve net zero. “It is only a small minority of private jet users, frequent flyers and first-class travellers that are ruining it for the rest of us.

Safe Landing attend a march for climate justice during COP26 in Glasgow, 2021.

 

What can you do about it? 

Let’s push collectively for aviation emissions and mitigation policies to be on the table at the next COP, COP29, in Azerbaijan in November 2024.

If you’re an aviation worker, concerned about the climate, and the future of our industry – sign-up to Safe Landing to strategise about how to do this most effectively: http://www.safe-landing.org/sign-up  

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