The UN’s aviation emissions offsetting scheme will not take 2020 into account when calculating how much airlines have to pay to neutralise their carbon dioxide output. Environmental groups have derided the decision for “making a mockery” of climate policy.
At the end of a council meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) on Tuesday (30 June), its 36 members agreed to tweak the baseline for the CORSIA offset scheme.
The airline industry had requested the change, citing the virus outbreak’s impact on air travel and the additional costs that would be incurred by including this year’s lower emission figures in the calculation metric.
CORSIA’s original rules use 2019-2020 as the reference point, which would in theory drag down the offset ceiling, obligating airlines to shell out more money to neutralise their emissions.
“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.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) called the change “reasonable” and “an objective that is reachable in the long run, to reduce CO2 emissions significantly and effectively.”
Environmental groups opposed to tweaking the baseline insist that using just 2019 will render the three-year-long pilot scheme useless, as emissions growth is unlikely to climb back above 2019’s levels. There will be no CO2 to offset.
The European Union’s member states agreed before the start of the ICAO meeting to push for a baseline change, after every country bar Sweden voted in favour of the joint position.
“Adapting the baseline is crucial to maintaining a similar level of ambition for the scheme and the commitment of ICAO states to the CORSIA pilot phase while taking into account the extremely difficult circumstances created by the pandemic for international air traffic,” said Croatia’s transport minister, Oleg Butković, at the time.
But senior MEPs from across the political spectrum had previously urged the Council not to be too hasty in changing the rules, warning that the true economic impact of the virus is still not clear.
Dutch Greens lawmaker Bas Eickhout was among those MEPs that wanted ICAO to wait until 2022 to take stock of the situation. He told EURACTIV that yesterday’s decision is “another nail in CORSIA’s coffin”.
“Each time we see the lowest common denominator is getting lower than before. If this Commission is serious on its Green Deal it should really change course and start preparing for EU action on international aviation as well,” he added.
Environment committee chair Pascal Canfin (Renew) said that “this is clearly not good news. It is also in stark contradiction with what citizens are calling for: not to use the crisis to delay or dilute climate ambition.”
The Frenchman also added that the Commission still needs to publish its report on the environmental integrity of CORSIA and that the EU should “lead ambition to regulate aviation emissions” as part of an upcoming review of the Emissions Trading System (ETS).
The EU’s carbon market currently only includes intra-EU flights between and within member states. Following a 2016 decision, the Commission agreed to exempt journeys in and out of the bloc from charges.
According to sources contacted by EURACTIV, the EU executive is not currently contemplating the idea of folding international flights into the ETS but legislative changes to how the sector is regulated might yet be made.
Airlines are issued a number of free pollution allowances every year but momentum is building behind a push to reduce or scrap completely those perks. Poland first mooted the idea earlier in 2020 and it is likely to come back on the agenda during Germany’s EU presidency.
The Commission has also proposed using ETS revenues to help repay its €750 billion virus recovery programme, which it would borrow from the capital markets. Its calculations insist that a slew of so-called own-resources could cover all the repayments.
Tapping into carbon market profits is a divisive issue that member states have rebuffed in the past. But there could be room for negotiation, as the Commission has suggested including the shipping sector and ring-fencing existing payments to sweeten the deal.
Aviation industry decision to weaken CORSIA climate plan could break ICAO’s own rules
Countries attending the UN’s ICAO meeting this week look set to weaken the only international policy to address the climate impact of aircraft. But the way the decision is being made could be in violation of the organisation’s own rules. ICAO has for years been supposed to take responsibility for international aviation CO2 emissions, but have done almost nothing. It has a scheme, CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) set up in 2016. It would, at best, deliver only small CO2 emissions reductions, nowhere approaching on the scale needed. Now ICAO plans to further weaken the CORSIA scheme, by changing the way the baseline for emissions is determined. A bad scheme would become a very bad scheme. This may be illegal, according to its own regulations – ICAO has always been opaque and concealed information. The change of baseline, using only 2019 emissions, not the average of 2019 + 2020, would mean no airline offsetting obligations until 2028 or later. It could also reduce the overall chance of cutting aviation carbon by 25-75%. The final decision on the baseline change is expected on 26th June.
‘Final blow’ to aviation climate plan as EU agrees to weaken rules
There had been hopes that the EU would insist on keeping more effective means of reducing carbon emitted by airlines. The current proposals by ICAO, in their CORSIA scheme, are too weak to be effective. The EU now say they will back the CORSIA scheme, which means watering down the rules. Airlines want the baseline period, from which to measure airline carbon emissions for the CORSIA scheme, to be the two years, 2019 and 2020. But 2020 is going to be a year of atypically low airline activity. So they want the base line period to be just 2019. That means giving airlines a free pass to pollute for the next 3 to 6 years depending on the speed of the Covid recovery. That is what the EU has now agreed to, having initially stood out against it. So airlines could save $15 billion in carbon offsetting costs, paying nothing till 2024. This weakening of the scheme would further damage the credibility of the CORSIA offsetting scheme, which is widely regarded as weak and not aligned with the Paris Agreement goals. It will now become essentially meaningless. The ineffective CORSIA scheme undermines many governments’ stated intentions to bolster climate ambition.
Open letter to ICAO – the CORSIA scheme should not be weakened, just because of Covid
Thirteen organisations concerned with aviation carbon emissions and carbon trading, have written to ICAO to ask that they stick to the intentions for how the CORSIA scheme is set up, and do not weaken it. The stated purpose of CORSIA is to help the international aviation sector achieve “carbon-neutral growth from 2020”. It is due to use as a baseline the aviation CO2 emissions from 2019 and 2020. However, with the Covid pandemic, airline carbon emissions will be much lower than anticipated this year. If ICAO used 2019 and 2020, the amount of carbon the sector could emit, and the cost of emitting it, would be far lower than anticipated. So IATA wants to change the rules, so the carbon baseline only considers 2019, not including 2020, which would result in significantly lower offsetting requirements for airlines compared to the current CORSIA design. In fact, under most recovery scenarios, the change sought by IATA would eliminate all offsetting requirements for the duration of the CORSIA pilot phase and potentially several years thereafter. The rules need to be adhered to.