Principles for honest reporting on the new aviation agreement

The UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Assembly met in early October to agree on measures to curb emissions from international aviation, a sector that had been left out of the Paris Agreement a year earlier.

From the perspective of our campaign to change the culture of flying in academia, I have to see the agreement as inadequate. The agreement is voluntary, relies too much on offsets in place of actual emission reductions, and gives too little attention to restraining aviation demand. The case against the agreement is summarized in the video below from FERN, an environmental organization, and in the vigorous Guardian column this week from George Monbiot.

Some environmental organizations are more optimistic about the agreement (see World Wildlife Fund Oct 10).

While readers may share one view or the other, I feel we should all agree on some principles of honest reporting about this agreement. Nobody should say that the ICAO agreement agrees to “limit aviation emissions to 2020 levels.” That is the misleading but commonly heard shorthand for what the agreement says. The agreement actually relies mostly on carbon offsets from sectors other than aviation, such as planting trees or capturing carbon. This has several implications for honest reporting:

  1. Even if the agreement worked as written, which is doubtful, the aviation sector should get credit for only a small part of the climate improvement that could result (for example, it is fair to give the aviation sector credit for the comparatively small anticipated future improvements due to increased fuel efficiency). Most of the credit goes to the sectors that actually provided the offsets and captured the carbon.
  2. Some major environmental NGOs seek to occupy a middle ground, supporting offsets but only if they are “good offsets” — meaning that care has been taken to avoid problems such as “double-counting” (for example, avoiding counting the same tree plantings in both the aviation agreement and national targets). But honest reporting requires admitting that, even if all available “good offsets” were assigned to aviation — an astonishing proposition in itself — there still would not be quite enough good offsets to meet the requirements of the agreement.
  3. Even the slightly more careful shorthand phrase that the agreement limits “net” emissions to 2020 levels is not sufficiently accurate, unless the context makes clear that the “net” emissions reduction is mostly from offsets. Pretending that lay readers will know what one means by the word “net”, without explaining about the offsets, is little better than crossing one’s fingers while telling a fib.

With honest reporting, even the environmental NGOs that are somewhat inclined to favor the agreement should be endlessly emphasizing that it is merely a first step. Any language describing this agreement as a major solution to aviation emissions serves to undermine public understanding of the need for a major culture change toward reduced demand for aviation.

2 thoughts on “Principles for honest reporting on the new aviation agreement

  1. There is some good reporting on the ICAO debacle in the industry trade journal Aviation Week & Space Technology. The first is an interview conducted by the editor-in-chief of two of the managing editors. The second is a commentary by one of the latter.

    1. “Podcast: Is ICAO’s Landmark Emissions Plan a Joke?” Joe Anselmo, Graham Warwick and Jens Flottau. Oct. 13, 2016.

    2. “Why ICAO’s Emissions Deal Will Not Make A Difference,” Jens Flottau. Oct. 20, 2016.

    Liked by 1 person

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