A recent hybrid meeting of high-level representatives at ICAO has led to cautious optimism that the UN agency’s member states could reach a collective agreement at their forthcoming Assembly on a long-term aspirational goal (LTAG) of net zero carbon emissions from international aviation by 2050. In a concluding summary of the meeting (HLM-LTAG) held in Montreal, ICAO and its member states were encouraged to “strive to achieve” the goal in support of the Paris Agreement’s temperature aims, recognising that it should allow for the differing capabilities and circumstances of countries. The meeting’s outcomes will now be considered by ICAO’s governing Council before a resolution can be put forward at the 41st Assembly starting late September. The aviation industry has already adopted a net zero 2050 target and the sector’s Air Transport Action Group described the meeting as a significant step forward. A senior US official close to the negotiations said it was a positive development in the lead up to the Assembly. However, some important countries remain opposed to the goal with China saying at the end of the meeting it was “completely dissatisfied” with the outcome.
ICAO has been studying the “feasibility” of a LTAG since requested to do so by member states in 2010, which resulted in a major report by the Council’s environmental technical committee (CAEP) published in March, following two years of work by 280 experts that covered long-term trends, the emissions reduction potential of new technologies and fuels, as well as the cost implications (see article). Outside its remit were recommendations of what the goal should be or how residual emissions – those emissions not reduced by in-sector means – should be accounted for in order to reach net zero.
The HLM-LTAG, with representatives attending in-person or virtually from 104 member states and 15 international organisations, considered inputs from states and international organisations covering the different scenarios and options for in-sector CO2 reductions, based on the latest technological innovations, new types of aircraft and operations, and an increased global production capability for sustainable aviation fuels. No discussions took place on market-based measures, such as ICAO’s CORSIA out-of-sector carbon offsetting scheme, even though under the CAEP report’s most ambitious scenario, the net zero by 2050 goal cannot be achieved by in-sector emissions reductions alone.
A major challenge that has faced negotiators at ICAO over many years on climate goals is reconciling differences between developed and developing countries over the governing principles and responsibilities for dealing with emissions from international aviation. Countries like China, India and Russia have objected to ICAO’s mid-term goal of carbon neutral growth and have so far not joined CORSIA’s voluntary phases. China has always contended the UN climate principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR) must take precedence over the non-discrimination and equal treatment principle set out in the Chicago Convention that underpins ICAO.
“CBDR is the cornerstone for all countries to establish wide international cooperation to address climate change,” said a working paper (WP/23) submitted by China for the HLM-LTAG. “ICAO’s efforts to conduct a feasibility analysis of any proposed LTAGs shall be aligned with the principle of CBDR.” Another paper submitted by China, together with India, Russian Federation and Saudi Arabia, said: “The developed nations must take [the] immediate lead in reducing carbon emissions and provide adequate implementation assistance to others; and recommend that ICAO as part of LTAG should make building assistance mechanisms [a] priority, and provide developing countries with adequate technical, funding and capacity-building, so as to strengthen the efforts of developing countries to address international aviation and climate change.”
While the concluding document from the HLM-LTAG specifically mentions a long-term aspirational goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, each state “is urged to contribute to achieving the goal in a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable manner and in accordance with national circumstances” and “contribute to the LTAG” within its own national timeframe. China has indicated a target of achieving carbon neutrality “before” 2060 and India has pledged to reach it by 2070.
Recognising that the largest potential impact on reducing aviation in-sector CO2 emissions will come from fuel-related measures, ICAO and its members states are encouraged to work with industry on new aircraft technologies and implementing enhanced air and ground operations, as well as with relevant stakeholders on research, development and deployment of sustainable aviation fuels, lower carbon aviation fuels and other cleaner energy sources for aviation. The document acknowledges substantial financial investments will be required and invites ICAO “to further consider the establishment of a climate finance initiative or funding mechanism under ICAO, while addressing the possible financial, institutional and legal challenges, and report to the 42nd Session [in 2025] of the ICAO Assembly.”
A working paper submitted by the EU and other ECAC states suggested the ICAO Voluntary Environment Fund “should be more visible” and states be encouraged to contribute to it, “whilst earmarking contributions for specific ICAO activities on LTAG”. A working paper presented by Brazil, India, Nigeria, Russian Federation and Sudan, and supported by some Latin American countries, recommended the establishment of a Multilateral Fund for Sustainable Aviation under the control of ICAO that would provide public and private stakeholders in developing countries with financing, capacity-building and technology transfer to help achieve an LTAG. An information paper from Australia, Costa Rica and the United Kingdom proposed the establishment of a Climate Finance Initiative, led by ICAO “as a trusted facilitator”, to bring states, industry, finance institutions and the investment community together to support, in particular, the most vulnerable developing states to access private sector financing.
ICAO set up a well-received programme to help developing states with their introduction of the CORSIA carbon offsetting scheme, called the Assistance, Capacity-building and Training for CORSIA (ACT-CORSIA). In June it established a similar programme for sustainable aviation fuels (ACT-SAF) and it is now recommended by the HLM to be extended to add support for the implementation of other emissions reduction measures in an ACT-LTAG programme. “Additionally, ICAO is encouraged to promote the voluntary transfer of technology, in particular for developing countries and states having particular needs, to enable them to adapt to cutting-edge technology and enhance their contribution to achieve the LTAG,” said the HLM-LTAG concluding text.
The outcome, described as a compromise by a number of states participating, was welcomed by the cross-industry Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), which has been urging ICAO states to adopt an LTAG at their 41st Assembly in line with the sector’s own established net zero by 2050 goal. It said a globally-aligned policy environment would bring stability of direction and certainty to bring about needed investments in new fuels and decarbonisation technologies.
“These negotiations are challenging as the different approaches of states are explored. But the effort to come together around a common goal of net zero has been encouraging and lays the groundwork for fruitful discussions at the Assembly,” said ATAG’s Executive Director, Haldane Dodd.
“Aviation decarbonisation is a huge challenge that needs investment and innovation from the industry, but also a coordinated approach with ICAO and its member states to set the appropriate policy frameworks required for success.”
In closing remarks to the four-day HLM-LTAG meeting, ICAO Secretary General Juan Carlos Salazar said: “Recovering from the effects of the pandemic and combatting climate change go hand-in-hand. As a global sector, aviation has a golden opportunity to show leadership as we ‘build back better’, aiming towards a sustainable decarbonised future.”
Top photo: ICAO building
Bottom photo (ICAO): Closing session of HLM-LTAG