• 10.07.16

A Historic Climate Agreement Will Make Air Travel Carbon Neutral By 2020

Now you can fly with slightly less guilt.

Coming on the heels of the world ratifying the global climate deal made in Paris in December, nations, after years of negotiation, have just agreed to the first deal to reduce the CO2 emissions from air travel–an activity that accounts for a growing portion of greenhouse gases globally.


The deal is the outcome of the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization meeting in Montreal this week. It aims to make the industry’s activities carbon neutral by 2020, but instead of asking airlines to reduce their emissions directly (though they are working on this) it will allow them to pay to offset their emissions with carbon credits generated by CO2 reductions elsewhere. The entire aviation sector had been previously omitted from the broader Paris climate treaty.

Many of the provisions will be voluntary for all nations until after 2026, after which they are mandatory (with some exemptions for poorer countries). So “carbon neutral” growth after 2020 is unlikely to be fully achieved. Even so, some of these countries that qualify for exemptions–such as Costa Rica, Kenya, Marshall Islands, and Papua New Guinea–have become climate leaders and have said they will participate. It’s possible the deal with lead to small increases in fares for consumers.

Canada’s transport minister Marc Garneau called the deal “historic,” but critics say it doesn’t go far enough: “This agreement is a timid step in the right direction when we need to be sprinting,” Greenpeace UK said in a statement. “The aviation industry has managed to get away for years with doing nothing about its growing carbon emission problem, and now it’s giving itself even more years to do very little.”

Air travel accounts for about 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but it is a quickly growing and symbolic slice. Even if the agreement could go further, it does represent progress. And at least now high-profile environmentalists like Al Gore and Bill McKibben will be able to fly around the world and have a better defense for silly “gotcha” questions about their own carbon footprint.

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.