Carbon compensation or the greenwashing of air transport

Carbon neutrality is a balance between greenhouse gas emissions and absorption by carbon sinks and can be summed up for industry in two words: emissions and compensation.

Thus, unavoidable emissions at the source must be compensated by actions to remove them from the atmosphere. In everyday life, photosynthesis is the natural process of carbon fixation; forests and oceans participate in the carbon cycle. But the oceans are now almost saturated with CO2 and are threatened by their acidification. On the other hand, primary forests are devastated. The Amazon, long considered a carbon sink, is now a net emitter of CO2. In Russia, the permafrost is thawing and releasing considerable amounts of CO2. In Africa, deforestation in the Congo Basin has never been so rapid. How to fight? Some say « reforestation »! It represents 61% of the offset projects, but it already seems doomed to failure because of the time lag between the immediate carbon emissions and the decades needed to make these new carbon sinks operational. Who will ensure the sustainability of these trees? Repeated droughts and increasingly frequent mega-fires call into question the success of these plantations; how will fast-growing tree species adapt to the available areas? Who will allocate the necessary land? Why offset emissions from the French in Brazil or the US in Uganda? Which emissions should we offset, those we use to fly or those we use to feed ourselves? What to do with the wood once it is mature? What to do with it once all the available land is used?

This inadequate « solution » is akin to a right to pollute.

Some people want to « buy time while waiting for technological solutions », but can we mortgage our future on such uncertainties?

The Climate Action Network publishes the results of a European Commission study showing that the carbon offset system included in CORSIA will be ineffective in reducing the climate impact of the aviation sector. « The objective of « carbon-neutral growth » via the use of the Corsia scheme is put forward by the airline sector and in particular Air France, as well as by the [French] Ministry of Ecological Transition, to justify efforts for ecological transition. » The study shows, however, that this objective is a red herring because « the programs labeled as eligible for CORSIA by the ICAO Council in March 2020 will not result in real and permanent emissions reductions. »

Today, each sector, and even each company, communicates about carbon neutrality in the more or less long term and claims to be able to solve the problem of global warming on its own. Unfortunately, aviation is no exception.

For its part, Air France has created an association that collects donations from passengers in order to invest them in reforestation programs. The operation has a dual purpose: to make its customers assume the cost of its program and to buy them a conscience so that they can take the plane with peace of mind.

But who can think that planting three trees will compensate for a round trip between Paris and Toulouse? Or for 1,000 new passengers at Montpellier airport?

Carbon compensation, not to mention the non-CO2 effects, is not a serious answer to the climate crisis. It risks generating major conflicts for human rights and threatening biodiversity while letting people think that the problem is solved. Only real and significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will have an impact. According to scientists, technology will not be enough; let us therefore organize a progressive decrease in air traffic because it will not be enough to plant trees to fly.

Will the European Aviation Summit on February 3-4 be a big greenwashing party, or will the various transport ministers actually take effective measures to ensure that air transport makes its fair contribution to the fight against global warming?

Translated with the support of DeepL