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Aviation industry opts to water down flagship climate plan

Airplane taxiing on runway
Jaromir Chalabala

The global aviation industry has been accused of backtracking on its climate commitments after controversially agreeing to change the rules for its forthcoming carbon reduction scheme in light of the disruption caused by COVID-19, sparking fears the moves will lead to higher emissions.

The 36-member council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) — the United Nations-affiliated body which governs the industry at a global level — in effect opted to water down the rules of its flagship Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for Aviation (CORSIA) in a unilateral decision last week.

Hailed as a landmark moment for efforts to curb the growing climate impact of global air travel when it was first adopted by ICAO in 2016, the market-based offsetting scheme was due to begin implementation from next year with an overall goal of delivering "carbon neutral growth" for the sector from 2020.

Future emissions reductions through the scheme were to be measured against a baseline established by taking an average of aviation emissions from 2019 and 2020. But with international air travel and therefore overall emissions from the aviation industry having taken a nosedive this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, CORSIA's 2020 baseline would have been lower than expected, creating a far more challenging decarbonization pathway for airlines than anticipated when the scheme was first agreed.

As a result, following plummeting passenger numbers and a huge downturn in revenues for airlines due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions, the aviation industry last week opted to change CORSIA rules by shifting the baseline year back to 2019 when the sector's emissions were higher, in effect watering down the flagship climate scheme by creating less stretching emission reduction targets for airlines for the first three years of the program.

ICAO claimed that maintaining the 2020 baseline year for the CORSIA scheme would "create an inappropriate economic burden to aeroplane operators, due to the need to offset more emissions, although they are flying less and generating less emissions."

The market-based offsetting scheme was due to begin implementation from next year with an overall goal of delivering 'carbon neutral growth' for the sector from 2020.

It hailed the decision as "great news for the environment," arguing shifting the baseline year to 2019 would safeguard the future of CORSIA. Making use of the unexpected traffic and emissions results being experienced this year due to COVID-19, it said, would "disrespect the originally agreed intention and objectives" of the 193 ICAO member states which backed COSIA four years ago.

"Council states today have made a measured assessment and have come to the most reasonable solution available given our current and very extraordinary circumstances," said ICAO council president Salvatore Sciacchitano.

However, environmental groups condemned the decision, arguing it would reduce the cost of emissions for airlines and provide them with less of an incentive to curb their impact.

Anne Petsonk, international counsel at U.S. NGO the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), accused the global aviation sector of backtracking on its commitment to deliver carbon neutral growth from 2020.

Last week's ICAO council decision means that if overall greenhouse gas emissions from the sector do not rise above 2019 levels in the coming years — a distinct possibility given changing working and travel patterns post-COVID — it effectively would give airlines a free pass by wholly excusing them from any offset or carbon reduction obligations, she reasoned.

"Changing baselines is a bad precedent for the development of carbon markets in other countries and sectors," said Petsonk. "Ironically, it means that airlines will lose the first-mover advantage they had sought to secure through CORSIA, as other carbon market actors will beat them to the punch on long-term supply contracts."

Moreover, she criticized the ICAO council for not consulting all 193 of its member states before making the decision, and warned the move could lead to national and local governments imposing their own carbon reduction targets on the industry.

"With offset obligations likely suspended for the pilot phase, today's decision leaves the field wide open for governments — at local, state and national levels — to require airlines to integrate climate action into their economic recovery," she explained. "That could, in turn, leave the industry with the very patchwork of regulations it fears."

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