15 April 2021

GreenAir News

Reporting on aviation and the environment

COMMENTARY: The global governance of aviation’s emissions – time to revisit the ICAO/UNFCCC relationship

In 1997, the UNFCCC’s COP3 decided, via the Kyoto Protocol, to treat international aviation indirectly through ICAO. CO2 emissions from international aviation have since doubled from 317Mt in 1997 to 641Mt in 2019, to match the total emissions of the 129 lowest emitting countries combined, ranking just behind Canada and at least one and half times those of the UK. Climate Action Tracker, which has been assessing the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of individual countries under the Paris Agreement, last year turned its attention to international aviation emissions. It concluded that current measures, and notably ICAO’s CORSIA carbon offsetting scheme, were “critically insufficient” – the worst level – and compatible with a 4°C+ world. Therefore, suggests Chris Lyle, that with the opportunity of the Covid-induced delay in the effectiveness of CORSIA and the upcoming COP26, it is time to revisit the ICAO/UNFCCC relationship.

It is currently unclear when international air traffic will return to pre-Covid 2019 levels and whether subsequent growth rates will be lower than in the past, but it remains a likely scenario that without markedly more effective climate policies, damaging emissions from air transport will at least double 2019 levels by 2050. If aviation is to make its requisite contribution to the Paris Agreement targets, its CO2 emissions would have to be reduced by 2030 to half 2019 levels and by 2050 to zero (not ‘net’ zero, which includes out-of-sector carbon offsetting, capture and storage).

The time is overdue to step back from the operational detail of aviation emissions mitigation, to review the effectiveness of current global governance and look to the future.

Technology and operations are a raison d’etre of ICAO and were the initial focus in addressing aviation emissions, including the adoption of standards on CO2 and non-particulate matter for aircraft, and improved air traffic management.

Electric and hydrogen powered aircraft are now in prototype or on the drawing board, with the potential to reduce air transport emissions substantially in the longer term. ICAO will undoubtedly continue to play a vital role regarding the certification and safety of these new aircraft concepts. But given they will not have a substantial global market presence until close to mid-century, there is a critical need for early address of other means of reducing aviation’s emissions, notably market-based measures and sustainable aviation fuels (SAF).

Voluntary carbon offset schemes from airlines and third parties have been on offer to passengers and shippers for many years but they are minimally taken up. A few airlines currently offset all their emissions themselves.

But carbon offsetting is at best an interim and inadequate mechanism. It shifts the moral responsibility for carbon reduction to someone else, the quality of offset units is heterogeneous and far from guaranteed, and an EU study showed that the majority of even offsets of the highest standards simply do not work. In the words of Christiana Figueres, past Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC: “Carbon offsetting is not a silver bullet, nor an alternative to the deep and decisive emission reductions that economies and communities have to make now and into the future.”

CORSIA limitations

Nevertheless, when technological and operational measures, while effective, proved to be inadequate against a growth in traffic, ICAO turned to carbon offsetting as its primary emissions mitigation measure. This is perhaps understandable given the benefit of hindsight and knowledge of the process of attempting to relate the UNFCCC’s principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) with “equal application” provisions of the Chicago Convention, along with the undue influence of the air transport industry. CORSIA is a complex form of offsetting and not aimed at reduction of emissions but rather sets out to achieve a goal of carbon neutral growth. It has been forecast to cover only 25% of international aviation CO2 emissions over its 2021 to 2035 lifetime. CORSIA has also stifled coverage of the EU’s Emissions Trading System, which has a more reliable effect but has been severely constrained in its geographic application to air transport.

Furthermore, CORSIA is fragile and, being based on ICAO Assembly Resolutions and implemented through ICAO Standards and Recommended Practices, it will at no point be binding under international law – a reason why ICAO has carefully avoided use of the word “mandatory” for the full effectiveness of the scheme from 2027. China, India, Russia and South Africa amongst others are by no means committed to CORSIA.

The scheme cannot currently be considered as a significant emissions mitigation measure. On the contrary, out-of-sector carbon offsetting needs to be discouraged in favour of real in-sector reductions in emissions. While CORSIA may well continue to play a role, it should not by any means be the only global basis for aviation emissions mitigation. However, in-sector offsetting could play a part, for example in funding of SAF.

Pending the arrival of electric and hydrogen powered aircraft there is increasing emphasis, including by ICAO, on SAF. There is no prevalent definition of an acceptable SAF, which may vary significantly from country to country according to the feedstock, and SAF is frequently equated with biofuels. However, many biofuels are not a solution when assessed on a full life-cycle basis, including land use, and on emissions reduction over kerosene. A current exception is biofuels from various forms of waste, which however will face increasing limitations of scale.

More promising are synthetic e-fuels which, like biofuels, have drop-in capability for all contemporary jet aircraft types. The current production of e-fuels is negligible, they require a large amount of green power to produce the liquid fuel, and their present cost is at least three times as high as that of conventional jet fuel.

Biofuels from waste and particularly e-fuels could nevertheless become viable alternatives given the application of blending legislation (for example States designing progressive and legally-binding blending mandates for fuel suppliers, airports and/or air carriers with principal place of business in their territories). But surely issues such as life-cycle and land use, or blending mandates in individual countries, should not be in the remit of ICAO?

Clearly, given the required investments and increased operating costs of SAF and e-fuels, government intervention and support will be necessary. Blending mandates will in any event include small proportions of SAF initially with only gradual increases because of lack of availability and so temper the rise in operating costs.

Direct carbon levies are another potential policy vehicle. Tax exemptions for fossil fuels, which discriminate in favour of air transport and against SAF, electric and hydrogen powered aircraft alike, should be removed but with ring-fencing of revenues for alternative fuel and power source development.

But again, such measures fall within the remit of individual governments, not ICAO provisions.

Long-term goal

ICAO’s current basket of emissions mitigation measures for international aviation – technology, operations, CORSIA and SAF – will contribute pro rata much less than any of the first NDCs to which 191 UNFCCC Parties have already committed. Six countries have already submitted enhanced NDCS and a further 120 have advised that they will be doing so before COP26. More than 125 nations, along with some major airlines, have now committed to net-zero emissions by 2050.

But, more than 23 years after being given its Kyoto mandate, ICAO still has no long-term global aspirational goal for mitigation of international aviation emissions, although for the past ten years it has been “exploring the feasibility” of one.

Apart from ICAO’s understandable snail’s pace in trying to get a common approach amongst 193 States prescribed by the equality of application provisions of the Chicago Convention, the UN agency has no regulatory authority over any individual Member. At the outset of its consideration of market-based measures, the organisation dismissed the idea of developing a new legal instrument for aviation emissions mitigation as too cumbersome and taking too long to deliver (a number of years). But in a speech on ‘The State of the Planet’ last December, the UN Secretary General saw a need for enforceable regulatory and fiscal steps in order that the aviation and shipping industries can deliver commitments to net zero.

Much of the above suggests a need for a rethink of the ICAO mandate from the UNFCCC. The Kyoto Protocol has now effectively lapsed and international aviation is de facto encompassed by the Paris Agreement in the same way as any other sector.

Any country can add international aviation to its carbon budget at its discretion and a number of countries are now including it in their NDCs. The UNFCCC at its COP26 in November could incentivise action on aviation emissions by mandating this approach. Several options for allocation of international aviation to Parties were on the table in Kyoto in 1997 before the conference ran out of time, and requisite data have since become much more readily available.

Bringing international aviation into the NDCs would give direct accountability and incentive for States to act on the related emissions, individually or through multilateral mechanisms such as CORSIA and the EU ETS. It would place international aviation more squarely in each national emissions context. Not only can it be difficult to separate domestic from international air transport operations, the two can share broader emissions generation aspects. For example, Heathrow Airport is the largest single source of CO2 emissions in the UK, but the majority of those emissions are from local traffic and business, not from the flights themselves.

COP26 might also provide direction on not only allowing but encouraging greater ambition by individual Parties, complementary but in addition to multilateral sectoral arrangements on aviation emissions reduction such as CORSIA or the EU ETS (on the basis of ‘bottom up’ rather than the current ‘top down’ of ICAO), and empowering individual Parties to apply such instruments as fossil fuel levies and low-carbon fuel blending mandates. ICAO should certainly no longer be sanctioned to continue as the sole regulatory policy framer for international aviation emissions – individual countries should be free to add their own more ambitious action.

Amongst other reasons for bringing policy into the UNFCCC:

  • Choice of emission mitigation measures would be at the discretion of individual governments in reflection of their particular circumstances, taking into account the relationship between air transport and their other industries.
  • Similarly, the influence of the air transport sector would be taken in a general national economic and emissions context rather than a predominantly sectoral one.
  • Governments would be held directly accountable for reducing both international and domestic aviation emissions and each country would be in a position to create incentives for, or impose sanctions on, air carriers, as necessary under its sovereign jurisdiction.
  • The generic CBDR principle as agreed to in Paris would apply, removing the discord with the uniform application provisions of the Chicago Convention.
  • Overlap, inconsistency and institutional duplication between ICAO’s Emissions Unit Criteria and the UNFCCC’s carbon-offsetting provisions would be avoided, with reduction of concerns regarding the double-counting of offsets.

The time has come also to move beyond the CO2 focus for aviation to take account of the other greenhouse gas and contrail-induced cirrus impacts. Recent climate research has shown that non-CO2 impacts of aviation are significantly larger than those of CO2 alone but they have yet to be included in mitigation measures.

None of the above is intended to be detrimental to ICAO’s fundamental role in aviation safety, security and air navigation and its very impressive work on raising the profile of the need for action on aviation emissions mitigation, development of environmental standards for aircraft certification and the monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) of fuel consumption and emissions. These activities will continue to be fundamental. But responsibility for global climate policy on international aviation, and criteria for determining the overall contribution of its emissions to climate change, should revert from ICAO directly to the UNFCCC. The present arrangements are entrenched and changes would take time, but there should be critical debate in the build up to COP26.

Views expressed in Commentary op-ed articles do not necessarily represent those of GreenAir.