Fulfilling climate obligations will be hard but we’re up to the challenge, promises aviation industry
Wed 29 May 2019 – Addressing aviation’s impact on climate change and meeting the challenge was a key theme at the industry's recent Global Sustainable Aviation Forum (GSAF) in Montreal. While attention remains focused on ICAO’s CORSIA offsetting scheme delivering carbon neutral growth from 2020, the industry’s long-term goal of halving net CO2 emissions by 2050 is coming under greater scrutiny since the UN IPCC’s recent report calling for greater action if the worst effects of climate change are to be avoided. While the industry set its long-term target a decade ago, governments at ICAO have yet to follow suit and some aviation representatives have urged the UN agency to take steps at its forthcoming Assembly in late September to move on the issue, although this is unlikely. ICAO’s own Environmental Symposium that took place the same week had a broad content, covering noise, air quality, climate adaptation, sustainable fuels, capacity building and operational issues.
“For a growing industry like air transport, halving emissions is a considerable challenge, particularly when you layer global politics on top of necessary climate action,” said ATAG Executive Director Michael Gill in an opening address to the Forum. “Fulfilling our climate obligations will be hard, but it is not a task which we can avoid. Indeed, we should be inspired by the challenge to engineer new technology aircraft and improve operational elements. We also need to accelerate work now to bring about a genuine energy transition in aviation, away from fossil fuels and towards sustainable energy sources.”
Gill said the industry’s long-term goal was in line with the Paris Agreement’s pledge to keep the global temperature rise to below 2 degrees C but acknowledged more countries were now looking towards net zero emissions targets. He revealed a cross-industry “team of experts” is currently examining its long-term goal and detailing a pathway to achieve it.
“But as we all know, the problem needs real solutions now, not just in 30 years’ time,” he told delegates. “This is why our plan includes the goal of carbon-neutral growth from 2020, to be pursued through CORSIA. But our plan also requires us to take decisive action in the next couple of years – certainly if we want to bring about a genuine energy transition in aviation.”
He said only a small number of the major oil companies appeared interested in the challenge of developing sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) production. “I would call on the traditional fuel suppliers to ‘read the tea leaves’ and acknowledge change is coming,” he urged. “We need them to get on board with this transition in a serious way before they are overtaken by companies more willing to innovate.”
He also called on airlines to commit to significant SAF uptake in the coming years. “This is really crucial. Governments must support this with appropriate policy structures,” he said. “To reach a commercialisation tipping point of around 2% of our fuel supply by 2025, it will require some 7 billion litres of SAF per year. Current estimates show that there are commitments for production facilities to meet half that volume already. So let’s raise our ambition levels and lay the foundations for not just our fuel supply out to 2025, but what has to actually become the main source of aviation energy in the coming decades.”
Gill said it was important to ensure CORSIA was robust through the monitoring of emissions and also in the quality of emissions units to be recognised by ICAO.
“It is estimated through CORSIA, airlines will fund at least $40 billion in climate action projects around the world,” he reported. “We want to make sure that our investments really do bring additional and high-quality CO2 reductions.”
He expressed concern that a small number of States, notably the European Union, were looking to adopt a different set of monitoring criteria rules from the agreed ICAO standards. “Global standards help boost ambition globally,” he said. “Whilst there may be concerns about the stringency of CORSIA from some States, the only way to ensure full coverage is to work alongside fellow States to help secure more volunteers [to join CORSIA].”
As governments looked to meet Paris commitments at a national level, he warned them not to take “the easy option” of taxation. “This brings with it little environmental integrity and simply prices lower-income citizens out of the travel market. It may be more complex to set up policy support for SAF, with more stakeholders involved, but it is the right move for both now and in the long term if we are to transition away from fossil fuels. Let us never forget that CO2 is the enemy in our struggle with climate change – not flying, not travel and not connectivity.”
Delivering the keynote address, Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu told delegates: “CORSIA was not arrived at easily – many stakeholders had to be brought to the table, including governments, who rarely agree on everything. As the Chair of IATA at the time, I can speak from direct experience that reaching an industry agreement [on market-based measures] was also no small feat.
“So I am concerned today when I see initiatives and trends that although well-intentioned, threaten the fragile consensus that we so painstakingly built. For example, the EU ETS, despite its laudatory goals, puts the CORSIA framework at risk of straying from its commonly agreed-upon MRV requirements. This attenuates support in other parts of the world as well.
“Even here in Canada, we have our own reservations about the current carbon pricing scheme that is being implemented domestically. In our case, there is no provision to earmark the money to ensure measurable reductions to contribute to decarbonisation. We’re cynical that it just looks like any other tax.”
He said airlines were already incentivised to reduce emissions through societal expectations as responsible companies and also the cost of fuel. For Air Canada, he added, fuel had been the largest operating expense, nearly $4 billion, last year. “As part of our overall corporate transformation, we have made reducing our vulnerability to high fuel prices – including by increasing fuel efficiency through purchasing more capable aircraft – a core part of our strategy.”
Mitzi Gurgel Valente da Costa, Brazil’s representative on ICAO’s governing Council, told the Forum that the groundwork on CORSIA had now been completed. “There are many challenges we still need to face but everything we set out to do since the last Assembly in 2016 is up to date. From now on, we need to implement what CORSIA is all about so we can see the fruits of what we’ve planted in the past three years.”
France’s Council representative Philippe Bertoux agreed work was on track to implement CORSIA and said the unanimous approval of the emissions unit criteria had been a landmark, but considerable work had still to be done. “The Technical Advisory Body will soon start its work, which is very important, and we look forward to receiving their proposals on emissions units at the November and early 2020 sessions of the Council,” he said. “We hope they will be based on technical proposals rather than political discussions.
“There is also more work to be done on sustainable aviation fuels. We have agreed two of the sustainability criteria but there are still 10 others outstanding, which we hope will be advanced as soon as possible.
“The important ACT CORSIA programme has been a great success and has helped some States decide to join the voluntary phase of CORSIA. We now have 80 States participating and we hope before it begins that we will have more.”
The US representative, Thomas Carter, who has been publicly critical of ICAO recently on other issues, told the Forum that the Council had “an enormous job” currently dealing with transparency at ICAO.
“But I will tell you that CORSIA is an extremely important issue. I know this US administration has a muddy track record on this [climate change] but we are committed to doing CORSIA. We also think it is important to be doing emissions standards and sustainable fuels, which we have been doing for over 10 years. The thing I am most worried about is are we going to try to do too much in this arena. We could keep expanding the environment portfolio but we risk diluting work on CORSIA and emissions standards. We don’t have the bandwidth at ICAO to do everything.
“Environmental issues are very important but we need to concentrate and focus on safety, which is certainly a big issue in the world right now, and security.”
Carter expressed concern that with a number of ICAO States not willing or ready for ICAO to carry out security audits, many won’t be ready for CORSIA.
A session on CORSIA focused on the next steps for the offsetting scheme with speakers representing airlines, regulators, carbon markets and NGOs. Helen Howes, Senior Aviation Advisor for First Climate, said airlines were anxious to know the criteria for offsets eligible under CORSIA as they develop their corporate strategies and were keen to hear outcomes from the work of the Technical Advisory Body. Airlines, she said, must buy good quality offsets that have real environmental integrity and perhaps consider offsets from countries where they fly to or those that resonate with employees.
The emissions unit criteria approved by the Council satisfied international best practice, said Brad Schallert, Deputy Director, International Climate Cooperation at WWF, but should be reviewed after the end of CORSIA’s pilot phase in 2023. He said there were opportunities for airlines to collaborate with organisations outside the sector when looking to buy offsets.
“From an airline perspective, we are driven to be cost efficient and so we want an open market and a broad access to offsets,” said Nancy Young, VP Environmental Affairs, Airlines for America (A4A). “But we do not want to create environmental controversy and we will be looking for the criteria to be applied robustly.”
While the price of offsets was an important consideration, Howes suggested airlines would also been driven by reputational risk rather than just buying the cheapest on offer. Schallert added that market price did not necessarily track with quality.
Young was adamant that countries should not be applying carbon pricing to international aviation over and above CORSIA. “CORSIA is the deal and it is a carbon pricing instrument that literally results in reductions of carbon emissions through the robustness of the programme, as opposed to just taking money out of aviation and using it for general revenues,” she said.
Schallert said there was generally more awareness among the public about the climate problem and therefore airlines must be ready to engage with customers and stakeholders to communicate on the measures the industry was taking.
Concluding the session, Young said she would like to see more countries participate in CORSIA. “We want it to be successful as it’s a critical bridging measure to complement other measures for achieving carbon-neutral growth from 2020,” she said. “The other thing we want to see is the upcoming Assembly reaffirming that this is to be the single market-based measure for international aviation, which was critical to getting agreement among countries at ICAO.”
In an opening keynote to the ICAO Environmental Symposium, Luis Alfonso de Alba, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the UN Climate Action Summit to be held in September, encouraged ICAO and the aviation sector to come to the Summit with a proposal that was meaningful and ambitious.
“It is critical for us to act within the next 10 years to achieve a reduction in emissions of at least 45% to maintain the temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees and aviation is a key sector to help us reach that goal,” he said via a video. “We need action that is very ambitious and goes beyond small incremental steps – we need bold decisions to be taken.
“Efforts taken by the sector, particularly the CORSIA agreement, need to be scaled up in a very substantial manner if it wants to be part of the solution. The public and private sectors need to join forces to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. There is no option as the cost of inaction is enormous.”
Further reporting on the ICAO Environmental Symposium to follow