Time for ICAO to open its climate change black box

The United Nations climate conferences bring together governments, academics, civil society, media and many others regularly to discuss climate change in the context of the UN Framework Convention. The next meeting takes place 6-17 November in Bonn. At the same time, behind closed doors without public scrutiny, the UN aviation body meets to decide on rules for a parallel, separate climate scheme.  These two sets of rules need to be aligned in order to stop the aviation deal from undermining global climate action.

Two years ago, under the landmark Paris Agreement, the world agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius and to strive to keep it at 1.5. But one major emitter tried to wiggle out of its responsibility to reduce its emissions under the Paris Agreement –  international aviation insisted on going about its own way to address its massive and growing climate impact.

Last year, members of the UN’s aviation body, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) agreed to set up a global offsetting scheme to compensate for part of its increasing emissions from 2020.

Offsetting behind the times

Offsetting means that you pay someone else to reduce emissions while you keep polluting yourself – or likely in the case of aviation, pollute more and more. In other words, it merely shifts emissions from one place to another at the same time as the Paris Agreement has brought an urgency for everyone to cut pollution to stay within levels that limit the worst impacts of global warming.

There is also another reason why ICAO’s offsetting plan is currently a huge threat to the Paris Agreement: there are no rules agreed between ICAO and the UN climate body (UNFCCC) to prevent aviation and states from claiming the same offsetting projects. With no clear channels of communication, countries may not even know that their emission reductions are being used by airlines, which would render them invalid for use towards their Paris pledge.

An opaque decision making process

Scant details of the aviation measure have been released publicly. This poses several obstacles from technical details to larger questions on compatibility with the Paris Agreement and countries’ climate targets. For example, airlines and states need to comply with monitoring requirements in less than 14 months yet airlines have no idea what kind of rules to follow.

More importantly, the Resolution establishing the global deal called the CORSIA, mentions that it will contribute to achieving the Paris goals and respond to the developments on markets negotiations, which should allow for higher ambition in states’ mitigation actions. However, unlike other market mechanisms, it does not allow for public participation or access to any rules that could have an impact on the functioning of the Paris Agreement, such as accounting rules and criteria for UNFCCC unit eligibility.

The EU must stand up for transparency

Transparency is a cornerstone of good and effective policy making and a fundamental tenet of democracy. Access to information and public participation are essential to ensure that any climate policy is correctly implemented and compatible with other climate actions and the Paris Agreement.  

It goes without saying that the details on a global deal that will have a huge impact on our future on this planet should be public. ICAO should open up its work on the market measure to the public to at least allow for identification of areas that could impact Paris ambition.  

ICAO isn’t the only one with the solution to a transparent discussion. The European Union and its member states, signatories to the Aarhus Convention on the transparency of environmental issues, promote open processes and encourage public debate. Now is the time for European members of the ICAO Council to walk the talk and kick off the public discussion on CORSIA.  

Kelsey Perlman

Further reading:

Too big to fail? Environmental responsibilities of the UNFCCC and ICAO processes for aviation’s new carbon market