Global aviation CO2 emissions cap almost clear for takeoff

While global aircraft emissions do not fall under the purview of the Paris Agreement, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has nevertheless been making strides toward regulating aviation carbon dioxide emissions.

Photo: Miranda Jensen

New ICAO scheme seeks to cap CO2 emissions at 2020 levels. Photo: Miranda Jensen

Last week at the conclusion of its 39th Assembly Meeting, ICAO members recommended for adoption “the first-ever global market-based measure adopted by an entire industry sector.” The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) standards are designed as market-based measures to work alongside the airline industry’s whole “basket of measures,” with the goal of achieving “carbon neutral growth from 2020.” Other tools in the basket include technology improvements, alternative fuels, and operational changes.

The airline industry is among the fastest growing sources of carbon dioxide emissions, currently responsible for more than 3% of the world’s GHG emissions and projected to “increase seven times by 2050 compared to 1990 levels.” While aircraft manufacturers have already made significant progress on the technology front, ICAO claims that those developments alone would not achieve carbon neutral growth.

CORSIA will complement other developments in aircraft emissions regulation. Earlier this year, ICAO proposed the first global carbon dioxide emissions standards for aircraft. These standards call on aircraft manufacturers to use certain technologies in new models of aircraft starting in 2020 in order to improve fuel efficiency. Together with the other items in the basket of measures, these carbon dioxide emissions standards and the CORSIA program will help mitigate the aviation industry’s impact on climate change.

According to ICAO’s 2016 Environmental Report and Appendix B of the draft resolution, the CORSIA scheme requires airlines to purchase offsets to compensate for their portions of carbon dioxide emissions that exceed the country’s baseline. This baseline is calculated based on airline market shares and the country’s projected 2020 aviation emissions levels. The program will apply in a series of phases. The pilot phase (2021­­­–2023) and first phase (2024–2026) will both be voluntary for any country that would like to begin participating in the program before 2027. Indeed, a surprising number of countries have already signed up to do so. In the pilot phase, countries will have flexibility to choose the basis for offsets whereas the first phase will require a specific calculation for determining the offsets. CORSIA goes live in 2027, when all countries except LDCs, SIDS, LLDCs, and “states with very low levels of international aviation activity,” will be required to implement the scheme. However, if one or both countries on the route is exempt and not participating in the program, CORSIA offsets will not apply to that route.

Some claim that ICAO’s CORSIA scheme does not go far enough to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Groups like Transport and Environment question the effectiveness of offsets and argue that the standards are not rigid enough to achieve carbon neutral growth. However, others such as Boeing are supportive of these new measures, applauding ICAO for helping industry curb aviation emissions.

In addition to these developments at ICAO, the United States has also been constructing the framework to regulate aviation GHG emissions. In August, EPA issued an endangerment finding, which concluded that six greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride) “endanger public health and welfare” under the Clean Air Act. This conclusion paves the way for EPA to regulate aircraft emissions domestically.

It’s plane to sea: COP21 should address international aviation and shipping

International aviation and shipping account for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The aviation sector already emits as much as Germany, and emissions are set to triple by 2050. Similarly, shipping currently contributes almost 3% of global emissions—a number projected to grow between 50 and 250% by 2050. To date these sectors have largely passed under the radar in terms of compliance with global emissions targets and reductions. But many see COP21 as a prime opportunity to set ambitious emissions targets for these sectors in line with the limiting the global temperature increase to below two degrees Celsius.

The Kyoto Protocol exempted aviation and maritime “bunker fuels” from emission reduction commitments. Article 2.2 directed Annex I parties to “pursue limitation or reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases not controlled by the Montreal Protocol from aviation and marine bunker fuels, working through the International Civil Aviation Organization [ICAO] and the International Maritime Organization [IMO], respectively.” This left responsibility for international aviation and maritime bunker fuels with UN Specialized Agencies—the ICAO and IMO—rather than with individual countries. Many think these agencies have dropped the ball: while other sectors are decoupling from carbon emissions, aviation and shipping are consuming an increasing share of the global carbon budget.

Source: Creative Commons, Flickr

A recent Business Green article highlights how the ICAO and IMO’s “progress has been slow.” Since the 1997 Kyoto summit these organizations have only implemented “a handful of measures” focused on emissions. In 2011, the IMO adopted energy efficiency design standards for new ships, but new ships are already exceeding these standards. While the IMO is working on developing a global data collection system for monitoring ship emissions, the organization resists calls for an overall emissions target. Meanwhile, the ICAO has set a target for “carbon neutral growth” by 2020, but has thus far not released details about how the organization plans to achieve this target. This slow progress is causing pressure to mount as the Paris climate negotiations approach.

A new paper from the New Climate Economy points to the huge potential for fuel efficiency gains in the aviation and shipping sectors. Improved efficiency would provide two-fold benefits: cut costs and reduced emissions, by as much as 0.9 Gt CO2e annually by 2030. With economic and environmental benefits alike, it makes sense that aviation and shipping should be at the table in upcoming global climate negotiations.

The most recent draft of the UN’s negotiation text highlights “the need for global sectoral emissions reduction targets for international aviation and maritime transport” and the need for parties to work through the ICAO and IMO “on developing global policy frameworks for meeting these targets.” Whether this language will last through the final agreement has yet to be determined. For now aviation and shipping remain the two “elephants in the room” at COP21.