In public, Qantas professes an absolute commitment to reducing carbon emissions rise. In private, it lobbies the government to weaken the global scheme for airlines to commit to offsetting their emissions. Elizabeth Minter reports.
The Qantas media release states the company’s bold commitment to tackling climate change: “Today’s announcement (November 11, 2019) means that Qantas is the only airline group to commit to cap its net emissions at 2020 levels, and the second to commit to net zero emissions by 2050.”
As CEO Alan Joyce said: “We recognise that airlines have a responsibility to cut emissions and combat climate change. We’ve already made some good progress … we want to do more, and faster.”
Behind the scenes, in stark contrast to its public pronouncements, Qantas was lobbying the Federal Government earlier this year to vote to weaken the global rules around carbon offsetting for airlines, according to Freedom of Information (FoI) documents. The weaker global rules were adopted, which will lead to a savings for the global airline industry of a minimum of $15 billion.
So much for a commitment to do “more, and faster”.
In the 218 pages of documents released on the Infrastructure Department’s FoI disclosure log, Qantas appears to be reluctant to put in writing references to the sort of lobbying help it wants from the federal government. Rather it seems to rely on phone calls (which are unlikely to be recorded and therefore open to FoI requests) to discuss the issues with department staff. It is only through the departmental staff’s return emails to Qantas that there is evidence of any discussion having taken place.
For example, a Qantas manager emails an officer in the Department of Infrastructure requesting a quick discussion about the carbon offsetting scheme “over the next day or two”.
Three days later, the departmental officer responds by email, noting “Qantas’s suggestion that 2019 only be used as the baseline year”. It seems the discussion has happened by phone, with no written evidence.
Moreover, the FoI logs show no evidence of Virgin lobbying the federal government around weakening the carbon offsetting rules.
Corsia – carbon scheme
The International Civil Aviation Organisation’s “Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation” (CORSIA) requires the airlines of participating countries to buy offsets to cover their carbon emissions above a baseline. This baseline was to be set by averaging the airline’s emissions in 2019 and 2020. The 15-year carbon reduction scheme starts next year.
With the industry expected to continue growing at about 3% a year, airlines would gradually need to increase the volume of offsets they bought to meet these targets. However, with the onset of Covid-19 and the collapse in global airline travel, it was clear early on in 2020 that emissions for 2020 were going to drop sharply.
This meant that the baseline rate obtained by averaging the two years’ emissions would be lower than airlines had expected and they might have to act more aggressively in their carbon reduction schemes. So the lobbying to change the baseline rate kicked off quickly.
The global airline lobby group International Air Transport Association (IATA) was doing its own lobbying. Meanwhile, Qantas, which is also a member of IATA, was doing its own lobbying of the Coalition government.
On March 23, Qantas’ Sustainability and Social Licence Manager emailed an officer in the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development requesting “a quick discussion on CORSIA reporting and baselines over the next day or two” (P9), according to emails released under FoI.
Three days later, the departmental officer responds, noting “Qantas’s suggestion that 2019 only be used as the baseline year”.
On May 22, Qantas’ Sustainability and Social Licence Manager emailed an officer in that department stating:
“We’ve received some reports from IATA that ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Organisation) is resistant to changing the CORSIA baseline this year and will present a paper to this effect at the June Council session (see below). Are you aware of this? Could we have a quick chat either today or Monday to discuss? This is obviously of great concern to us and would appreciate any update you can provide!”. (P57)
Again, it appears the subsequent chat took place by phone.
In June this year, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Council voted to set the baseline to 2019 emissions only, not 2019/2020.
Thus when airlines return to business as usual, so too will carbon emissions, something the planet cannot afford. Critics say that the carbon offset scheme was already so weak that it was never going to properly tackle the airline industry’s rising pollution.
And by changing the baseline year, governments have given airlines yet another free pass to pollute. The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) estimates commercial aviation emissions for 2018 at 918 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2.8 This is around 2.4% of global fossil fuel emissions, and almost as twice as much as Australia’s domestic emissions.
IATA, the airlines lobby group, wrote in May that a change to the baseline emissions would save airlines an estimated $15 billion in carbon offsetting costs. Even this is an extremely low estimate, according to Dan Rutherford, the aviation director at the International Council on Clean Transportation, because it doesn’t include the social costs of carbon, such as pollution.
Critics say the fact that airlines lobbied hard to water down the scheme once it looked like they might have to start paying for the pollution they generate means they were never serious about it.
The International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation was scathing of the decision to change the baseline figures, describing it as a betrayal to future generations.
“CORSIA was already far below what is needed to avoid climate catastrophe. Airlines, in pushing for this change, have undermined their own case for international action.”
Gilles Dufrasne, a policy officer with Carbon Market Watch, said such backdoor lobbying was a further demonstration of IATA and its member airlines’ approach to climate policy.
“They support climate action in public but undermine it in private. They ask for public bailouts but refuse to pay fair taxes. This is not an isolated Australian case. In the EU, IATA is also trying to dismantle climate policies, while trying to paint a picture of a sustainable aviation sector to their customers. It’s hypocritical.”
The Australia Institute released a report earlier this year about aviation emissions during COVID, and concluded that any stimulus packages should require airlines to reduce emissions in the future and meet the commitments of the CORSIA agreement.
Meanwhile emissions rise; the planet warms; airlines do what they can to stymie effective action; shareholders line their pockets