Mon 26 Nov 2018 – ICAO has set a deadline of 1 December 2018 for governments to “file differences” with ICAO’s new Standard and Recommended Practices (SARP) for its flagship CORSIA programme to cap the net carbon pollution from international flights. Under ICAO’s governing treaty, the Chicago Convention, technical committees comprised of experts and observers from some two dozen countries propose international flight standards on matters from safety and security to environment. ICAO’s 36-member governing Council adopts the proposed standards and circulates them to ICAO’s 192 Member States. In turn, Article 38 requires the governments of those States to file with ICAO a notice of any differences between the SARP and their country’s national regulations. ICAO has set thousands of such standards through this process. Typically, Member States know the details of SARPs in advance and file very few differences. But CORSIA is, well, different, writes Annie Petsonk (right).
ICAO’s Council has not yet agreed key elements of the CORSIA standard. Yet ICAO is asking its Member States to implement a SARP with blank spaces in it. Typically, were many governments to file differences, that could undercut a SARP’s legitimacy. But in the case of CORSIA, differences are understandable given the blank spaces. What matters is whether governments will move swiftly to fill in those blanks. Here’s why.
Demand for air travel is expected to skyrocket in coming decades as some 50,000 aircraft take flight. The resulting CO2 emission increases could make it much more difficult, maybe impossible, to meet the Paris Agreement goals of limiting warming to less than 2° C and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5° C above preindustrial levels.
The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) is a first step. Under the 2016 ICAO Assembly Resolution establishing CORSIA, airlines must start reporting emissions of international flights on 1 January 2019 and cap those emissions from 1 January 2021. To meet the cap, airlines can reduce their own emissions or invest in verified carbon reductions elsewhere. The prospect of CORSIA’s emissions cap is already spurring new efficiency gains, research on lower-carbon fuels and testing of hybrid-electric aircraft.
As low- and zero-carbon long-haul flights are not on the near-term horizon, carbon pricing is a key tool for driving the sector to decarbonise. And with 25 months until CORSIA’s cap takes effect, airlines are on the hunt for carbon credits.
But disagreements among ICAO Council States over which carbon credits will be allowed, and how to account for those in ICAO and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), have left important blanks in the CORSIA SARP. Filling them in is a high-stakes undertaking:
- If ICAO and UNFCCC both require solid environmental integrity and rigorous carbon accounting, CORSIA could spur broad low-carbon investment, not just in aviation but also in forest protection, solar and wind energy, and new approaches to store more carbon when farmers grow food crops.
- But weak rules could invite backroom deals on dubious carbon credits and bogus alternative fuels. CORSIA’s carbon market could be flooded with credits from the old Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), many of which are environmentally shaky at best.
- Loose rules could let airlines claim carbon credits in CORSIA even as those very same emission reductions are already counted by governments towards their national climate protection goals (‘double counting’). That kind of loophole could undo the climate benefit of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) in the Paris Agreement, and set climate protection efforts back years.
What are the blanks in the CORSIA SARP?
Paragraph 4.2.1 of the SARP says: “The aeroplane operator shall meet its offsetting requirements … by cancelling CORSIA Eligible Emissions Units in a quantity equal to its total final offsetting requirements for a given compliance period.” And, “CORSIA Eligible Emissions Units” are those “which meet the CORSIA Emissions Unit Eligibility Criteria contained in the ICAO document entitled ‘CORSIA Emissions Unit Eligibility Criteria’.” And, “These ICAO documents are available on the ICAO CORSIA website.”
But these ICAO documents are simply not there. The ICAO Council hasn’t adopted the CORSIA Emissions Unit Eligibility Criteria yet. So, the Technical Advisory Body that ICAO is supposed to establish to evaluate which credits should be deemed ‘CORSIA Eligible Emissions Units’ doesn’t have criteria to work with. Other paragraphs of the SARP have similar blanks for CORSIA-eligible fuels.
What’s more, while the SARP says that the CORSIA Emissions Unit Eligibility Criteria ‘tak[e] into account relevant developments in the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement,” the meeting to set carbon accounting rules under the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement doesn’t even start until December 2nd – after ICAO’s December 1 deadline for filing differences.
ICAO’s July State Letter asks governments to file “any differences that will exist on 1 January 2019 between the national regulations or practices of your Government and the provisions of the whole” of the CORSIA SARP. What can governments do when the “whole” doesn’t exist?
Some might just not respond. Others might say they’ll enforce the CORSIA’s emissions reporting, but won’t regulate emissions units and fuels until the blanks are filled in. And some, like European Union member states, may have to wait until the “whole” is complete, as legislation obligates the European Commission and Parliament to assess the whole before enacting new regulations.
So what difference will the filing of these differences make? Had a majority of governments disagreed with the CORSIA SARP, then under ICAO rules they could have disapproved it in accordance with the State Letter’s October 22 deadline. They didn’t. Instead, the filing of any differences signals that countries are willing to negotiate and should put wings to efforts to finalise high integrity, transparent rules for CORSIA.
As the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in its recent Special Report, cutting climate pollution is urgent. Aviation must do its part.
Annie Petsonk is International Counsel at US-based advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund
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