Last day drama at ICAO Assembly as old disputes between developed and developing countries over climate action re-emerge

Last day drama at ICAO Assembly as old disputes between developed and developing countries over climate action re-emerge | ICAO A40

Fri 4 Oct 2019 – Drama unfolded on the last day of ICAO’s 40th Assembly as China, India and Russia attempted to reopen negotiations on two climate related resolutions that were expected to be adopted in the final plenary session. Signs of discontent in closed sessions during the Assembly emerged when a joint statement (WP/605) was released by China, India and Russia detailing significant changes they wanted to the climate change resolution. China called for a secret ballot of States that resulted in the original climate and CORSIA resolutions (WP/58 and WP/59) being adopted by 92 votes to 25, with 10 abstentions. The three major emerging nations, with the support of others, notified ICAO of reservations to the resolutions and called for a high-level meeting in 2021 to continue discussions on the issue. IATA told the Assembly that intense outside pressure meant industry would have to work faster than ICAO to reduce the sector’s climate impact.


“Many States came here hoping for no drama on CORSIA but for those of us who have worked on this issue for many years, we knew better and an easy meeting was unlikely, but few expected it would come to a vote,” said the United States representative in a closing statement during the Plenary. “It was unfortunate the meeting was pushed in a direction of division rather than in a spirit of working together to find compromise.


“No country claims CORSIA is perfect and most are quick to point out its flaws but if we wait to find the perfect answer to be agreed by all countries to address this important issue, we will be waiting for a long time.“


The vast majority of countries at ICAO had supported the resolutions, he told the Assembly, but much work was still needed for ICAO to address the issue. “The United States remains committed to working with other countries in a spirit of cooperation but we expect the same from others,” he said, adding his reluctance for a high-level meeting so soon after the difficult discussions that had taken place at the Assembly. “While today has been perhaps bitter-sweet, we are eager to see CORSIA continue to be implemented and remain committed to working to address the difficult issues raised in this meeting.”


China’s representative said substantial divergent views existed on the two resolutions that had not been addressed properly during the Assembly. He said China wanted a high-level meeting in order to “improve” the two resolutions.


“As the largest developing country, China strongly supports the efforts to address international aviation’s impact on the environment and climate change. China is taking proactive action to effectively control the growth of aviation emissions,” he said.


However, he added, States should be allowed to choose their own mid-term and long-term goals and the implementation path that was best for their own circumstances. “China therefore advocates for the establishment of an international aviation emissions reduction scheme that allows each country to make contributions to the best of its ability and that is fair and just as well as conducive to mutual learning,” he said.


"We maintain the goal of 2020 carbon-neutral growth only focuses on controlling the growth of emissions while neglecting developed countries historical responsibilities for emissions and the legitimate rights to the development of developing countries and emerging economies. This goes against the notion of justice and fairness advocated by the international community and undermines mutual trust and cooperation among Member States.”


In the unadopted joint proposal by China, India and the Russian Federation for revisions to the draft climate change resolution, wording was struck out on a long-term aspirational goal for international aviation.


India’s representative said a high-level meeting would be a way forward to address the concerns of the sizeable minority who had voted against the adoption of the proposed text of the resolutions, which she said had elements that were difficult to accept. She said India had particular concerns over ICAO’s carbon-neutral growth from 2020 goal and targets for sustainable aviation fuels.


The Russian Federation representative said the international focus should be on a real decrease in emissions through technology and his country believed the implementation of CORSIA would increase the growth of emissions from international aviation and would have a negative impact on ICAO’s strategic goals of safety, environmental protection and economic development. He maintained CORSIA would distort competition and the sustainable development of the aviation industry.


Russia and Brazil both expressed support for a high-level meeting. Despite not agreeing with certain parts of the resolutions, Brazil was still implementing the MRV elements of the CORSIA SARPs, stated Brazil’s representative.


“However, discussions at the previous Assembly and this Assembly shows that CORSIA is a complex mechanism that raises concerns by many countries,” she said, calling for a broad dialogue between States. “If we want to keep CORSIA as a global and effective resource we must include the appropriate tools to address these concerns. As we have seen, this is not an easy task. In order to have an effective review of CORSIA in 2022, the Council needs to start work now.”


Finland, on behalf of the EU, Iceland and Norway, said a clear majority of States had wanted to make CORSIA a success. The EU, Iceland and Norway continued to strongly support CORSIA and remained fully committed to implement from the start of the pilot phase, said the representative, and called on other ICAO States yet to volunteer to do so as soon as possible.


EU States came to the Assembly to defend their perceived right to continue applying the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) to international flights within Europe, which paragraph 18 of the draft CORSIA resolution appears to negate by making CORSIA the exclusive global market-based measure for international aviation. Pre-Assembly discussions between the EU institutions had centred around entering a reservation on the paragraph if it was adopted. However, the original text remained yet a reservation was not mentioned by the Finnish representative. 


Instead he said States retained their sovereign right to implement their legal obligations under the Paris Agreement in a manner consistent with civil aviation's Chicago Convention, as long as each State applied its laws and regulations on an equal basis to all aircraft operating in its jurisdiction. This would suggest the EU believes it is within its right to continue with the EU ETS once CORSIA starts in 2021, regardless of paragraph 18, as long as airlines were not subject to duplicative requirements.


IATA's representative told the Assembly that what had been witnessed over the past few days during meetings had been unprecedented. “As an observer, it could be construed that ICAO had taken a step backwards in a world where at the moment the pressures are intense on airlines to move forwards on resolving the climate change issue as quickly as possible,” he said. “We will continue to support ICAO but, sadly, I think we’re going to have to move faster than ICAO is going to be able to in order to take whatever steps we can in finding ways to continue to reduce our environmental footprint.”



Video recordings of the two Plenary sessions are here and here



Reaction and comment on the Assembly outcome (updated 7 Oct):


Air Transport Action Group (ATAG):


The cross-industry sustainability group welcomed the eventual adoption of the two climate resolutions, highlighting in particular the support for prioritising work on developing a long-term goal for aviation CO2 emissions, with that work to be completed for presentation at the next Assembly in 2022.


“The aviation industry has had a long-term goal for reducing emissions from air transport for a decade,” commented Michael Gill, ATAG’s Executive Director. “We are encouraged that there was clear support from governments meeting at ICAO to develop a UN-backed goal and the industry stands ready to help technical and strategic discussions over the coming three years as the details of a goal are developed.           


“As air transport connectivity grows, particularly to meet the needs of developing and emerging economies, we also need to work to reduce our climate change impact. The aviation industry has been very successful in significantly improving fuel efficiency of our operations in the past – with an overall efficiency improvement of 17.3% since 2009 – and we expect that to continue. But we also recognise the need to do more and for us to start bringing down net CO2 emissions from the sector in the coming decades. The work on a long-term goal, backed up by individual government policy measures to help with the energy transition away from fossil fuels, will provide a coordinated approach to achieve this.”


Despite the “robust” discussions, ATAG also welcomed the re-affirmed support for the development of the medium-term carbon-neutral growth goal from 2020 through CORSIA.


“We recognise that working towards decarbonisation in aviation is a challenge, compared with other sectors that have more immediate options such as electrification,” said Gill. “The energy transition to sustainable fuels and the introduction of new technology options will take time, so CORSIA has been developed as an interim measure to help balance the growth in connectivity with the need to reduce emissions. We are encouraged by the support of governments to continue their work on CORSIA and urge more States to volunteer for this important measure.”


International Air Transport Association (IATA):


IATA said the 40th Assembly marked the first time that ICAO Member States had agreed to consider a long-term goal for governments to reduce aviation emissions.


“The strong support of governments for developing a UN-backed long-term goal for reducing emissions would support us in those efforts and take us to the next step. National policy measures aligned to a global long-term emissions reduction goal will enable the industry to work even more effectively on crucial opportunities like commercialising sustainable aviation fuels and more efficient air traffic management,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.


Commenting on the Assembly’s adoption of the CORSIA resolution, de Juniac said: “We need to implement CORSIA successfully. It’s essential to our promise of carbon-neutral growth. This Assembly has sent a clear message that governments are committed to CORSIA and want to broaden participation from the voluntary stage. We look forward to seeing these commitments delivered as CORSIA begins – particularly by those states that are undermining CORSIA with additional taxes or charges.”


Environmental Defense Fund (EDF):


The NGO noted the Assembly had moved forward on CORSIA and a long-term goal, despite the objections of China, India and Russia. It said the climate strike that had taken place in Montreal and disrupted the Assembly proceedings should serve as a “wake-up call” that ICAO should heed.


“In the end, Friday’s plenary produced a bag of mixed results. While the Assembly reaffirmed its previous policies to begin to address aviation’s climate impacts, it will need to do much more to chart the kind of course needed to avert dangerous lock-in of climate-damaging aviation infrastructure,” said Annie Petsonk, International Counsel at EDF.


“Industry leaders recognise that the science behind Greta Thunberg’s 'flygskam' movement calls into question the entire future of international aviation, but some governments seem determined not to grapple with this. We look to ICAO to get down to business developing real options for decarbonising international aviation by 2050, noting that the three-year work programme ICAO gave itself to develop a roadmap gives the flight-shame movement three years to mature into even more of a challenge to the business-as-usual approach to aviation’s future.


“We will be watching to see that all airlines implement CORSIA with integrity, and we will press airlines and governments to put in place the declining limits on climate-damaging emissions that are needed to make flying something that is compatible with Paris climate goals.”




“Civil society asked countries for a clear timetable and process to develop a long-term climate goal, but we won't get that,” said Brad Schallert, Deputy Director for International Climate Cooperation, WWF-US. “However, youth turning out in the streets across the world has helped change the tenor of these talks. While three countries – China, with Russia and India – objected to the notion of developing a long-term goal for carbon reduction, a vast majority of countries felt the pressure from the protesters around the world. As a result, they supported civil society and the aviation industry’s call to develop and adopt a long-term goal by at least the next ICAO Assembly in 2022. Now these countries in ICAO have to live up to their promise over the coming months and years knowing the world is watching.”


Transport & Environment:


The Brussels-based NGO said the Assembly had not taken any significant steps to curb the aviation sector’s emissions and had failed to make progress to advance a long-term emissions reduction target. Through the adopted CORSIA resolution’s ‘exclusivity’ clause, it said, ICAO “had moved to shut down action” by those States, including the EU, that wanted to do more to tackle emissions through additional market-based measures.


T&E said it welcomed what it considered to be an objection by the Finnish representative on behalf of the EEA countries after the resolution had been passed but believed a formal reservation on the exclusion clause should have been filed. “This simple move would provide absolute confirmation of the EU bloc’s right to regulate aviation pollution in Europe through its Emissions Trading System as well as ticket and fuel taxes,” it said.


“Europe must stay true to its commitments under the Paris Agreement and press ahead with planned measures to rein in its aviation emissions, starting with ending the kerosene tax exemption,” said Andrew Murphy, Aviation Manager at T&E.







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