UN aviation body ditches older carbon credits from offsetting scheme

A shot from underneath an aircraft shows its turbines

The global aviation industry has taken a key step forward in agreeing rules for carbon offset credits in its global greenhouse gas reduction scheme, as the sector reels from the economic fallout of the escalating coronavirus epidemic which has seen travel bans implemented around the world.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on Friday agreed on rules governing the eligibility of carbon offset programs for the initial pilot phase of the industry's Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), which runs from 2021 to 2023.

Following recommendations from a technical advisory group (PDF) set up by the ICAO Council, the United Nations-affiliated aviation body has agreed to allow airlines to purchase CO2 offset units from six programs under CORSIA in order to meet its emissions reduction targets up to 2023. The approved schemes include the U.N. Clean Development Mechanism, the Gold Standard and the Verified Carbon Standard.

And, in a win for climate campaigners, ICAO has said it will exclude offset projects started before 2016 from CORSIA, amid long-standing concerns that some older projects have been dogged by poor accounting and environmental provisions.

The decision paves the way for the implementation of the market-based emissions reduction program from 2021, first agreed by 192 countries in 2016, setting an overall target to curb growth in emissions from the sector at 2020 levels using carbon offsets.

"CORSIA remains on track and we're encouraged that this latest council progress will bring clarity to the requirements to be placed on airlines," said ICAO Secretary General Fang Liu. "ICAO will continue its efforts to drive further CORSIA progress and prepare our member states for its pilot phase through the assistance, capacity-building and training for CORSIA currently being conducted through our ACT-CORSIA program."

The plans have sparked a mixed response from green groups, with some warning the reliance of offsets could distract from the need for the industry to curb overall emissions and others suggesting the creation of a more credible global offset market could help establish an important framework for delivering net zero emissions.

Annie Petsonk, international counsel at U.S. green group Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), welcomed the decision to exclude older credits as "one hopeful step in the right direction," but stressed that much more work remained to be done if the world is to decarbonize aviation.

"We applaud the ICAO Council for listening to its experts and focusing on science in its decision to adopt robust environmental provisions in its market-based system to reduce climate pollution from airlines," she said. "At a time of extreme stress for the industry, aviation has stood by its commitment to grapple with the climate crisis even as it deals with the immediate tragedy of COVID-19. That is a demonstration of real leadership."

The move also was praised by the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA). "The council's adherence to robust emissions unit criteria combined with the imposed restriction on historical emissions reductions brings the high environmental integrity we have been calling for," said Eva Weightman, IETA's director for aviation.

Separately, the ICAO council also adopted a new standard to reduce civil aviation impacts on local air quality and human health in both new and in-production engines from January 2023 onwards.

The moves come as airlines around the world face huge losses in revenue as international travel bans are implemented across the United States, Europe and Asia to try to stem the pandemic, with American Airlines cutting its international flights by 75 percent, it emerged over the weekend.

The travel restrictions introduced to combat the COVID-19 pandemic also could affect CORSIA, with airlines potentially forced to offset more emissions than previously estimated, Climate Home News reported.

Offsets under the CORSIA mechanism are set to be established using total emissions for 2019 and 2020 as the baseline, but these are anticipated to fall with flights grounded worldwide because of the pandemic. If traffic then rebounds in coming years, growth from the baseline would be bigger than previously expected, forcing airlines to offset more emissions than they would have otherwise, it explained.

The unexpected shift in the baseline could increase the number of offsets airlines have to purchase, or alternatively it could spark a major lobbying effort to change the baseline to a year with more conventional demand levels.

In related news, a meeting of ICAO to consider technological and operational changes to reduce aviation CO2, as well as availability of sustainable aviation fuels, has been postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak. An ICAO stocktaking seminar was to be held in Montreal, Canada, at the end of April, but a new date for the event will be announced in due course, ICAO said.

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