The ICAO agreement is the first step to aviation’s environmental target

In early October 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) 191 member states agreed to implement a Carbon Offset and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). The agreement will support the industry’s work to stabilize its emissions with carbon neutral growth.

“The historic significance of this agreement cannot be overestimated,” says Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.

With CORSIA, aviation remains at the forefront of industries in combating climate change

“CORSIA is the first global scheme covering an entire industrial sector.

"The CORSIA agreement has turned years of preparation into an effective solution for airlines to manage their carbon footprint. Aviation is a catalytic driver of social development and economic prosperity — it is the business of freedom making our world a better place.

"This agreement ensures that the aviation industry’s economic and social contributions are matched with cutting-edge efforts on sustainability. With CORSIA, aviation remains at the forefront of industries in combating climate change.”

Voluntary scheme

While the agreement is being rightly applauded, Michael Gill, Executive Director of the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) and Director, Aviation Environment, IATA, stresses that it is just the beginning. “We need to get CORSIA implemented,” he insists.

“And we must continue working on the other pillars of the industry’s environmental strategy to ensure we reach the long-term target of halving 2050 emissions compared with 2005. Because that target is now coming into focus.”

Under the ICAO agreement, CORSIA is voluntary for states from 2021 until 2026, at which point it becomes mandatory. CORSIA starts from 1 January 2021 because airlines need to assess their emissions for the full 12 months of 2020, making 2021 the first year of compliance.

“And CORSIA is voluntary because that is what it took to get the deal done,” Gill explains matter-of-factly.

“As you can imagine, a lot of political negotiations have been going on and making the scheme voluntary was the solution which gained consensus among states — particularly after the successful Paris Agreement last year for other parts of the climate challenge, which is entirely voluntary in nature.”

Gill accepts that the industry was pushing for full mandatory coverage from day one but believes the voluntary agreement may actually prove beneficial in the long run.

“It may be better to work with states that have signed up on a voluntary basis and are eager to push forward and find solutions than have a mandatory scheme that forces states with reservations to comply,” he says.

In any case, a significant number of states seem eager to participate, with even some small island nations and developing economies showing their commitment by signing up. By early November 2016, 66 states had agreed to take part in the voluntary stages, which means that over 80% of the growth in international aviation will be covered after 2020.

Simple compliance

For airlines, CORSIA compliance comprises monitoring and reporting their carbon emissions and then offsetting a corresponding amount.

Some of the fine detail of the monitoring and reporting requirements are still being worked on at ICAO but it is expected that this will be finished during 2017.

For IATA, the challenge ahead is to work with those governments not yet committed to the voluntary scheme

Once the scheme kicks in, airlines will comply by purchasing the necessary credits in carbon off setting projects. Exactly what criteria will validate the offset projects is also being finalized in ICAO in the next year but environmental integrity and administrative simplicity will be priorities. The projects will cover a broad spectrum of conservational work and be located across the world.

“For IATA, the challenge ahead is to work with those governments not yet committed to the voluntary scheme,” says Gill. “There are a few notable absentees who need to be convinced of the merits of the scheme.”

IATA also intends to continue its work with the NGO community to ensure the momentum of the ICAO agreement is maintained and all stakeholders are working toward a common cause.

Last, but not least, IATA will be ensuring airline members are ready to comply with CORSIA. Over the next few years, regional workshops will train airlines in CORSIA compliance. At the same time, ICAO will work with governments to prepare them for their enforcement role.

Other pillars

With the 2050 target now looming on the horizon, the other three pillars of aviation’s environmental strategy working alongside a global market-based measure — improvements in technology, operations and infrastructure — must not be neglected.

“Because the industry is so ambitious in its environmental goals, we cannot look to CORSIA alone,” says Gill. “It will not lead to a sustainable future by itself.

"Every aspect of our work to reduce carbon emissions remains critical.”

The massive order book for new, environmentally efficient aircraft is one major avenue of improvement. But the big push in the coming years will be the commercialization of sustainable alternative jet fuels. While their success in operational terms has been proven beyond doubt, agreements to use them in the long term are still newsworthy events.

This is a proactive step to address customer demand and protect our business and the future of our industry

In February 2016, Oslo Airport became the first gateway to supply airlines with alternative fuels for regular daily flights, for example. And JetBlue has announced its intention to start using renewable energy sources for flights from New York from 2019 in a decade-long agreement.

“This is a first of many steps towards a slowly evolving change,” says Robin Hayes, JetBlue’s President and CEO. “With our partner, SG Preston, we are pursuing renewable jet fuel production from feedstock systems with the ability to lower CO2 emissions by 50% or more per gallon before blending. This is a proactive step to address customer demand and protect our business and the future of our industry.”

United Airlines, Lufthansa, KLM, Cathay Pacific, FedEx and Southwest Airlines are among the other airlines making significant commitments to the future of the industry through alternative fuels.

Meanwhile, Finnair’s Kati Ihamäki, Director of Corporate Responsibility, says climate change mitigation has been an ongoing process at the airline for several years.

“We are currently completing the modernization of our long-haul fleet with the new Airbus A350, which is the one of the most energy-efficient aircraft on the market,” Ihamäki informs. “In addition, we are also heavily involved in the Helsinki Green Hub project, which aims at facilitating the future use of biofuels at our Helsinki Airport hub.”

The aviation industry understands that sustainability is critical 

Gill says that it is encouraging to see more and more airlines playing a leadership role in getting this new energy source into daily operation. But breaking the cycle of high price, low demand and low supply will take a renewed collaborative approach across the sector.

“We need a smart regulatory framework to create favorable market conditions that would be a win for all parties,” Gill believes.

“The ICAO agreement shows what can be accomplished when we all work together,” he concludes. “The aviation industry understands that sustainability is critical and we won’t leave anything or anyone behind.”