OPINION: Pilot problems? China ducks out of first phase of global aviation emissions scheme

July 9, 2018 by Emily Jackson

Madeleine Cuff, Deputy Editor, Business Green

(First published by Business Green)

cuffmadeleine-230x230Do you want the good news of the bad news?

China’s position as both the world’s largest polluter and its biggest clean tech market has long given rise to policies and investments that appear contradictory, but rarely has the country’s complicated relationship with climate action been more clearly highlighted than this week.
Within days of unveiling its latest package of measures to tackle pollution and step up investment in clean energy, it emerged that the Chinese government has also withdrawn its participation in the first phase of the aviation industry’s global deal to limit greenhouse gas emissions, dealing a major blow to the scheme even as it prepares for take-off.

Reports this week revealed that China does not appear in a formal list of participants, dated June 29, on the UN aviation agency ICAO’s website. ICAO confirmed to BusinessGreen that China “does not wish to participate in this initial and voluntary pilot phase”, but refused to comment further.

The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) was agreed in 2016, and is intended to eventually require all international passenger and cargo flights, as well as business jets that generate more than 10,000 tonnes of emissions annually, to purchase internationally approved carbon credits in a bid to ensure aviation emissions are effectively capped at 2020 levels.

The scheme is slated to come into effect from 2021, with a pilot phase set to run until 2023, followed by a voluntary phase that will run through to 2027. From 2027 all states, with the exception of a handful of developing nations that will be exempted from the scheme, will be mandated to join the carbon-pricing initiative.

CORSIA is seen as vital for justifying the expansion of aviation capacity around the world, including in the UK where the government is backing a third runway at Heathrow.

China originally said it expected to be an “early participant” without specifically confirming whether that meant it would take part in the pilot or voluntary phase of the scheme. But in recent months CHina has led concerns amongst emerging economies over some of the detail of how the offset scheme will work, including restrictions around what offset projects would qualify.

Some 72 other states have said they will participate from the outset, including the US, the UK, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, and Australia.

But the loss of China, whose air travel market is predicted to be the world’s largest in just five years’ time, is a serious blow for a scheme purporting to be a solution for global aviation emissions.

However, hopes remain that China could yet be won over. According to Reuters, Europe will try to “address China’s concerns” and convince the country to remain a participant in the earlty phases of the scheme over the coming months.

The scheme has faced fierce criticism from environmental campaigners in recent weeks over moves to allow airlines to claim credit for ‘low-carbon’ fossil fuels as long as they emit less carbon over their life-cycle than standard fuels.

The move deals a further blow to UN-backed climate efforts ahead of this year’s crucial COP Climate Summit in Bonn, after the latest meeting of the Green Climate Fund broke up without any further progress and with the resignation of its chair.

However, any fears China’s government is cooling on climate action are somewhat alleviated by the fact the blow to CORSIA came as officials released a new pollution plan for 2018-2020, targeting heavy industry and coal consumption as part of a fresh bid to alleviate the country’s air pollution crisis.

The plan sets a new target for two million electric vehicles to be produced in China each year by 2020, a major ramp up on global production levels, which currently hover just above the one million a year mark.

Moreover, some 82 cities across China will fall under the plan’s remit, with coal-producing provinces including the Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces targeted as “key” control regions that will have to cap or cut coal use by 2020.

However, although the plan contains provisions to close small coal-fired power stations under 300MW, these can be replaced by “ultra-low-emission” coal-fired units, a move Greenpeace declared “very disappointing”.

New restrictions will also seek to curb emissions from heavy industries, with steel production in Hebei – China’s main steel making province – capped at 200 million tonnes by 2020. More focus will instead be placed on expanding green industries and promoting energy saving solutions, the government promised.

Green groups are likely to welcome much of the plan, especially given the moves come amid reports that a strong economic performance during the first few months of the year could result in Chinese emissions rising again following several years when growth in emissions had slowed.

China remains both the world’s largest clean tech market and investor and arguably the critical country for determining whether or not the goals of the Paris Agreement are met. That is what makes its climate action plans so important, and its decision to defer its involvement in global efforts to tackle aviation emissions so disappointing.

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