Following a decade of negotiations, ICAO’s member states have adopted at the conclusion of their 41st Assembly a collective long-term aspirational goal (LTAG) of reaching net zero carbon emissions for international aviation by 2050 that aligns ICAO with a similar commitment agreed by the industry last year and in line with the objectives of the Paris climate agreement. While setting a common global policy framework at a UN level, the goal does not assign binding targets to states or carriers and it will be up to countries to establish their own policies and measures to cut aviation emissions. While hailing the significance of the agreement, IATA Director General Willie Walsh said there was “not a minute to lose” and called on governments to work with the industry to decarbonise the sector, particularly on the deployment of sustainable aviation fuels that could mitigate up to 65% of the emissions needed for reaching net zero by 2050. The Assembly also agreed on a new lower CORSIA baseline from 2024 onwards, defined as 85% of CO2 emissions in 2019, a move previously resisted by the industry on cost grounds as it recovers from the impact of Covid.
“Countries have achieved some tremendous and very important diplomatic progress at this event and on topics of crucial importance to the future sustainability of our planet and the air transport system which serves and connects its populations,” said ICAO Secretary General Juan Carlos Salazar.
Congratulating ICAO states on the decision to back the industry goal, Haldane Dodd of the Air Transport Action Group said it was a milestone for the aviation sector. “The spirit of global cooperation has been on show at ICAO over the past year with governments making the most of the benefits of multilateralism,” he said. “But setting a goal is one thing, Making it a reality is where the hard work really begins and we need to continue – and accelerate – the efficiency improvements and energy transition that is already underway across the industry.”
Added IATA’s Walsh: “Now that governments and industry are both focused on net zero by 2050, we expect much stronger policy initiatives in key areas of decarbonisation, such as incentivising the production capacity of sustainable aviation fuels. And the global determination to decarbonise aviation that underpins this agreement must follow the delegates home and lead to practical policy actions enabling all states to support the industry in the rapid progress that it is determined to make.”
Efforts by states should now be focused on ways to incentivise an increase in SAF production capacity and thereby reduce its cost, he said. “The tremendous progress made in many economies on the transition of electricity production to green sources, such as solar power and wind, is a shining example of what can be achieved with the right government policies, particularly production incentives.
“The costs of decarbonising aviation are in the trillions of dollars and the timeline to transition a global industry is long. With the right government policies, SAF could reach a tipping point in 2030 that will lead us to our net zero goal.”
Walsh now wants the “aspirational” characterisation of LTAG “to be transformed into a firm goal with a clear plan of action” by the time of the next Assembly in 2025. “That means governments must work with industry to implement an effective global policy framework capable of attracting the financial resources needed to put aviation on an unstoppable track to achieve net zero by 2050. Governments must not lose the momentum that has driven the outcomes of this assembly.”
Dodd said many states will need help implementing a net zero pathway in their own country and financing the transition will be a priority. “Net zero aviation is a serious challenge but it is fully achievable if we work together across industry, government, the energy sector and finance communities,” he said.
Emerging economies with a fast-growing air transport sector, notably India and China, have argued their carriers would require until 2060 and 2070 respectively to achieve net zero emissions, implying the need for richer countries to reduce emissions even faster, said the International Council on Clean Transportation. “To build room for poorer countries to grow, richer countries will need to peak emissions even faster,” commented its Aviation Director, Dan Rutherford. “So the world will be looking for quick action from wealthier governments like the EU, US, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. To get to net zero in 2050, we’ll need to peak emissions as soon as 2025.”
Dodd said the resolution is shaped to allow for different speeds of decarbonisation by countries around the world to ensure each government can respond to its own national circumstances but within a common global action framework. “Everyone is flying in the same direction towards net zero aviation by the middle of this century,” he added.
After the first periodic review of CORSIA, ICAO’s carbon offsetting scheme for international aviation, states agreed on another change to the all-important baseline, above which airlines are required to purchase and surrender units to offset the growth in emissions. Under the original design of the scheme adopted in 2016, the baseline was set at an average of 2019-2020 CO2 emissions from international aviation. When the Covid pandemic struck and brought air traffic to an almost complete halt, so skewing emissions in 2020, the industry successfully lobbied ICAO to change the baseline to the 2019 pre-Covid level for the pilot phase (2021-2023). Environmental groups, a number of whom believe CORSIA already to be an unambitious scheme, wanted a return to the original baseline whereas IATA advocated maintaining the 2019 baseline, on the grounds of increased costs to airlines.
Prior to the Assembly and after negotiations between states and an evaluation by ICAO’s CAEP technical committee, four options on the baseline were put to the ICAO Council, with a compromise option agreed of 85% of 2019 emissions baseline. During the Assembly, IATA changed its position to support the compromise, which was subsequently adopted by states, with the new baseline to take effect from 2024. Also agreed were revised percentages for the sectoral and individual growth factors to be used for the calculation of offsetting requirements from 2030 onwards.
Walsh commented the agreement would strengthen CORSIA but place a significantly greater cost burden on airlines. “So it is more critical than ever that governments do not chip away at the cement which bonds CORSIA as the only economic measure to manage the carbon footprint of international aviation,” he said. “States must now honour, support and defend CORSIA against any proliferation of economic measures. These will only undermine CORSIA and the collective effort to decarbonise aviation.”
The compromise did not please European clean mobility group Transport & Environment, which estimates the 85% baseline would mean just 22% of total international aviation emissions would be covered by the scheme and therefore offset in 2030. It said the low cost of offsets provided no incentive for the decarbonisation of the industry or the uptake of green fuels. T&E calculates €1.70 would need to be added to the price of a ticket to offset emissions on a flight from Europe to the US under the new baseline, compared with €2.40 for the average 2019/2020 baseline.
T&E is campaigning for all EU departing flights to be covered by the EU ETS as well as CORSIA. “This is not the aviation’s Paris Agreement moment. Let’s not pretend that a non-binding goal will get aviation to zero,” said Jo Dardenne, T&E’s Aviation Director. “If countries and industry are serious about this aspirational goal, they should stop bullying the EU out of its plans to finally price emissions from departing flights. The EU should not wait for many empty promises to move ahead with its SAF mandates and pricing of departing flights.”
Although criticising CORSIA’s lack of ambition, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) said the scheme was crucial for delivering monitoring, reporting and verification of international aviation emissions at the global scale and for hosting ICAO’s SAF framework.
“While ICAO missed a great opportunity to deliver greater CORSIA ambition, the 85% deal averted backsliding, an outcome that would have slashed CORSIA obligations for years,” said Pedro Piris-Cabezas, Director, Sustainable International Transport & Lead Senior Economist at EDF. “In parallel, the changes to the methodology to allocate obligations among air carriers paves the way for broader participation in CORSIA by addressing market distortions and equity issues. There’s much room for improvement and greater ambition for CORSIA, but this is a solid outcome that still gives us room to take a step forward.”
Representatives from the broader air transport industry welcomed the Assembly outcome. “This is a watershed moment in the effort to decarbonise the aviation sector with both governments and industry now heading in the same direction,” commented Luis Felipe de Oliveira, Director General of Airports Council International. “On a global scale, airports and ACI remain fully committed to reach this net zero goal and we look forward to working together as one aviation ecosystem – so air transport can sustainably deliver socio-economic benefits to people and communities for generations to come.”
Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation Director General Simon Hocquard said: “Reducing the environmental impact of aviation is one of the most pressing issues facing our industry. So we are delighted that governments have backed aviation’s aim to fly net zero.”
The Director General of the International Business Aviation Council, Kurt Edwards, added: “We commend ICAO for embracing net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, aligned with the business aviation industry’s long-term commitment. It signals to the world that governments, joining industry, must redouble climate-action efforts to achieve the goal, including implementing policies to encourage greater availability of and access to sustainable aviation fuels for all operators around the world.”
Chair of the International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations, Jan Pie, said: “States’ agreement on an ambitious climate target aligns with the industry goal and is a strong signal of leadership in the fight against climate change by the civil aviation sector. As we go forward with new technologies and work to assure 100% compatibility of engines and aeroplanes with sustainable fuels, we look forward to working with ICAO to help put those targets into action.”
Five leading European aviation associations, which came together to publish the Destination 2050 net zero roadmap in early 2021, said the ICAO agreement would play a key role in providing consistency among policies, create a level playing field and set the ground for the necessary regulatory certainty for investment and finance to secure a sustainable future for the global air transport sector.
One of the first governments to react to the net zero agreement was the UK, which launched the International Aviation Climate Ambition, now comprising 59 countries, at the UN COP26 in Glasgow last year. The government said the initiative “played a critical role” in securing the Assembly agreement, which was in line with the UK’s own Jet Zero commitment.
“Climate change is a global challenge which will only be tackled by nations across the world working together towards clear, shared goals,” said UK Transport Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, describing the collective net zero goal as an historic milestone. “It represents years of tireless work by the UK and its partners to lead the world towards a clean future for all.”
There was near unanimous support by the 184 states attending the Assembly for the LTAG and CORSIA draft resolutions presented for adoption, with objections (‘reservations’) only from China and the Russian Federation.
During the Assembly, for the first time since joining ICAO, Russia failed to win enough votes in the ballot to be re-elected for the new three-year term of the 36-member ICAO Council.
(L-R) Jane Hupe, Deputy Director, Environment, Air Transport Bureau, ICAO; Juan Carlos Salazar, ICAO Secretary General; Poppy Khoza, Director General of Civil Aviation of South Africa and the first ever female President of the ICAO Assembly; Salvatore Sciacchitano, President of ICAO Council; Mohamed Khalifa Rahma, Director, Air Transport Bureau, ICAO