A big change is under way in the world of commercial aviation. As of January 1st, 2020, all international aviation growth is going carbon neutral. Domestic Canadian aviation will follow step. For Pickering Airport, a new international airport to be built just east of Toronto, it means that all of its flights can be carbon neutral when it opens in 2028.
For more than a decade, the aviation industry (airlines, airports, aircraft manufacturers and air navigation services providers like NAV Canada) — has had the goal of addressing its share of human-caused CO2. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is the specialized body of the United Nations devoted to civil aviation that agreed to the vision of carbon-neutral growth from 2020 onward. The mechanism to achieve this is the Carbon Offset and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).
At the 2019 ICAO Assembly, member nations reconfirmed their commitment to CORSIA. The plan is to cap net emissions from 2020 onwards and to cut them in half by 2050, compared to 2005 levels. This aligns aviation with the objectives of the COP21 Paris agreement. For a decade ICAO has been collecting and sharing emissions data from hundreds of airlines and thousands of flights around the world. ICAO’s robust multi-sourced data is eclipsing older single-source theoretical models, often based solely on cherry-picked European sources. This enables policymakers as well as consumers to make decisions based on the most accurate and consumer-friendly emissions calculator in the world.
In parallel to ICAO’s CORSIA, Airports Council International (ACI) established the “Airport Carbon Accreditation” (ACC) program in 2009. At COP21 Paris, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) and ACI entered a partnership to promote and advance the program. The program is supported by the ECAC (European Civil Aviation Conference), ICAO, the FAA, Transport Canada and the UN Environment Program.
To date, 295 airports worldwide (representing more than 44% of global commercial passengers) are participating in the ACC program. Sixty-two (62) including Dallas-Fort Worth, Schiphol, Rome, and London’s Gatwick, Stansted and City Centre airports have achieved the highest level of accreditation – Carbon Neutrality.
The first international airport to be built in Canada in a generation, Pickering Airport can and should be carbon neutral at first flight. Becoming carbon neutral would be a fitting tribute to Canada’s role as the host nation for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
In Canada, there are several key challenges ahead on the road to carbon neutral aviation. These include efficiency-killing airport congestion, the threat of a patchwork of aviation-discriminating taxes and acquiring enough high-quality carbon offsets to satisfy the aviation industry’s demand.
The capacity that the new Pickering Airport will provide will go a long way to resolving the congestion projected for Canada’s busiest airport, nearby Toronto Pearson International.
The threat from a patchwork of competing national and regional taxes is a bit harder to resolve. While a limited consistent carbon tax across all transportation fuels should not be an issue, specific aviation taxes could introduce incentives to be carbon inefficient. A good example of one such compromising tax was proposed in the Canadian Green Party’s “Vision Green” policy statement. In it a reference is made to an “Carbon Equivalency” tax that could double any normal jet fuel carbon tax. The justifications for this tax appears to be based on the unfounded fear that contrails could double the impact of aviation carbon emissions.
An extra carbon tax specifically targeting jet fuel would undermine the efforts to reduce carbon emissions in two distinct ways. Firstly, it would encourage Canadians to take the other primary method of travel between most Canadian cities, the automobile. Thanks to advances in aviation technology, and ICAO’s extensive multi-source emissions data collection from Canadian airlines, it is clear that driving solo long distances in the average Canadian car now produces up to three times the carbon emissions of flying. Secondly, as a result of the “import parity effect”, and the Canadian population’s close proximity to the US border, airline operators would now have a financial incentive to purchase fuel in the US. This will lead to fuel tankering in aircraft that would reduce aircraft load and performance. It has been estimated that in 2018 in Europe 900,000 tonnes of excess C02 emissions were created by this practice.
Special Canadian-only jet fuel taxes will create an incentive for suboptimal routing to enable the purchase of jet fuel in the US. Currently, Toronto Pearson offers nonstop flights to three-quarters of the world’s major destinations. This would change to indirect routes with more short-haul flights connecting to nearby US hub airports rather than optimal direct flights to a destination. The irony is that the Green Party’s policy will increase rather than reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in addition to unnecessarily putting Canadian travellers’ freedom of movement at the mercy of a US border agent.
Lastly, and just as importantly, government taxes on aviation raise the cost of travel for everybody and are major disincentives for economic competitiveness. The first casualty will be Canada’s ability to attract Low-Cost Carriers, the growing and highly competitive, highly efficient sector of commercial aviation best able to replace the automobile with locally accessible aviation.
Another challenge is the lack of “Made in Canada”, local verifiable carbon offset credits. Few currently exist in Canada despite the aviation industry’s new-found hunger to pay for these credits. Many carbon credits outside of Canada, particularly those related to reforestation, have been found to be useless. Problems range from outright fraud (forests not being replanted), to the trees not being properly managed after being planted. The on-line independent US news organization, ProPublica, published an exposé concerning a Brazilian reforestation project, concluding that carbon credits for forest preservation in Brazil may be worse than nothing.
To fill the need for “gold-standard” carbon credits, we need locally-sourced and verifiable projects. For example, planting 1 billion trees would cover the Canadian aviation industry’s emissions of 7 Mt (megatonnes) created by domestic and 14 Mtby international flights. This is an opportunity for a new green Canadian industry, not a burden to be shuffled off onto a distant third world nation.
In the face of multiple, cascading environmental uncertainties, it is time for hard choices and thoughtful efforts to support ICAO’s CORSIA plan and ACI’s ACC program with Canadian offsets.
It is time to build Canada’s first all carbon neutral airport – Pickering Airport.