Describing it as a “landmark decision,” the International Civil Aviation Organization Council last month approved a package of rules and standards to ready its planned Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) for takeoff. The global-market-based measure, which aims to cap the growth of international aviation carbon dioxide at 2020 levels, starts with a pilot phase in 2021 but all airlines producing annual CO2 emissions above 10,000 tonnes will need to measure and report their emissions on cross-border flights from January to allow for the calculation of a sectoral 2020 emission baseline.
The standards and recommended practices provide technical rules on how airlines and governments must measure, report and verify emissions. The Council also reached an agreement on the specifics for a CORSIA Central Registry.
“Aviation has now set out not only its climate change goals but also the means to achieve them,” said Council president Olumuwiya Benard Aliu. The progress achieved, he added, “is a clear demonstration of the unwavering commitment, on behalf of both governments and airlines, to minimize the future impact of international aviation on the global climate.”
But concerns are growing that CORSIA will not deliverer on its projected goals. Key criteria defining the environmental effectiveness of the program were not determined at the June Council meeting in Montreal while, after intense lobby of Saudi Arabia, the 36 Council member states agreed to widen the definition of sustainable aviation fuels to include what has been dubbed "lower carbon conventional fuels."
“Airlines burning kerosene could be rewarded with reduced obligations to buy carbon offsets simply because the refinery producing the oil was running on renewable electricity,” environmental lobby group Transport & Environment pointed out. “Moving to sustainable, non-fossil fuels is one of the most important ways to decarbonize flying but the ICAO scheme actually does the opposite,” T&E’s aviation manager Andrew Murphy said.
Julie Girling, a member of the European Parliament and its influential environment committee, called the decision on fossil fuels “a bizarre and unnecessary concession to oil-producing countries including the U.S.” Moreover, she added, “China is out of the pilot stage and the offset [rules covering the type of offsets or carbon units that will be allowed under the scheme] has been kicked down the road to avoid confrontation, which doesn’t augur well for future agreement.” China’s withdrawal brings the total number of countries that intend to voluntarily participate in CORSIA from its outset to 72 representing 75.95 percent of international aviation activity, according to the ICAO website. That compares to the previous 87.7 percent that included China’s share.
The EU put the inclusion of flights to and from the bloc in its emissions trading system on hold to allow ICAO to implement CORSIA. While a snap-back to the full scope of the EU ETS is unlikely, European airlines are worried a weak CORSIA might give lawmakers ammunition to keep the system in place for intra-EEA flights or further strengthen it. “Any measures at the national and EU levels, such as the aviation EU ETS, would place an unfair double burden on European airlines and put them at a competitive disadvantage in the global market,” stressed Airlines for Europe managing director Thomas Reynaert. The ICAO Council should make “swift progress” on the emissions unit criteria for eligible carbon credits, he added.
In the past months, several European countries wrote to ICAO to express concerns over the sustainability of the alternative fuels that will be recognized under CORSIA and the quality of the carbon credits airlines can buy to offset their CO2 emissions.
CORSIA is initially voluntary and airlines will only need to offset the growth in emissions from flights between states that have volunteered to participate. From 2027 the scheme becomes mandatory. The global market-based measure—the first of its kind for any sector—is part of a package of measures including technology, sustainable aviation fuel, operational, and infrastructure to reduce aviation’s carbon footprint.