ICAO new year’s resolution – 3 steps towards robust aviation pollution rules

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is currently finalising the rules for its carbon offsetting scheme that will enter into force come January 1 of next year. Lack of transparency and possibly non-binding offset credit criteria risk undermining efforts to make the aviation sector do its fair share of climate action in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

In 2016, the ICAO agreed to set up an offsetting mechanism to compensate for its emissions growth above 2020 levels. Rules to ensure the environmental integrity of the credits under the scheme will be adopted by the 36 member countries of the ICAO Council by June 2018 and become applicable for all countries on January 1, 2019.

New year’s resolutions offer a great opportunity for promises to do better in the year ahead. We therefore encourage ICAO and its member states to commit to a strict regimen of good governance between now and June (and beyond).

As for any credible resolution, it is important to set a goal, outline steps and milestones to get there, be prepared to adjust the process along the way – and seek advice from friends. The goal for ICAO and its member states: to have robust rules in place that guarantee environmental and social integrity as well as broad acceptance of the CORSIA by the end of the year. The following steps will lead the way to this goal.

#1 I will be more open and listen to my friends

In December 2017, ICAO shared a document containing the draft rules approved by the ICAO Council to its 192 member countries for consultation. Governments have until March to make comments, after which the ICAO Council will adopt the rules (Standards and Recommended Practices, SARPs) unchanged or with amendments. As has been the case with numerous other documents related to the CORSIA, ICAO chose not to make the document public. However, at least the United Kingdom, Norway and Germany have done so.

Worryingly, lack of transparency is not limited to the preparation phase of the scheme: while the draft rules talk about disclosing information on, among others, the final offsetting requirements, nowhere does it use the word publicly. Without public scrutiny, it is impossible to know if you’re sticking to your regimen and getting results, or in this case, if the future offsets respect the criteria that they should.

Therefore, as part of its new year’s resolution, we suggest that ICAO and its member states open the work on the draft rules for public participation and takes due note of the input from interested stakeholders, including civil society organisations, to ensure as wide acceptability of the scheme as possible.

#2 I will stick to my commitment

Currently, the way the rules have been drafted would allow individual countries to decide what constitutes an eligible offset without any mandatory criteria to follow. This would naturally raise questions about whether or not countries will comply with the criteria. If the rules don’t have to be respected by all countries, they become, well, useless.

ICAO must therefore make the offset eligibility criteria mandatory meaning that it is the ICAO Council that decides on the eligibility of offsets, not individual countries on a voluntary basis.

#3 I will aim higher

Aviation emissions account for approximately 4.9% of all global warming and, if left unaddressed, are projected to grow by up to 300% by 2050 . The sector may account for a quarter of the total carbon budget (the amount of emissions we can still release) to stay under 1.5 degrees of warming by 2050.

CORSIA will only cover a portion of emissions growth above 2020 levels and does nothing to address emissions below the 2020 level. Further, offsetting merely shifts emissions from one place to another at a time when it has become alarmingly clear that everyone must cut pollution to stay within levels that limit the worst impacts of global warming.

The price of future offsets is likely to be about 20 cents per tonne, especially if all credits under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) are accepted without any further quality criteria as planned. Additionally, with many studies – most recently the UN Environment’s Emissions Gap Report – throwing into doubt the environmental effectiveness of CDM credits, a blanket approval of this program would mean that CORSIA’s contribution to global climate action will be zero.

So, even if ICAO stays true to its new year’s resolution in 2018, it must recognise that CORSIA is only the first step on the way towards meaningful climate action from the aviation sector. It is imperative to already think about additional measures to give the right price signal and to encourage emissions reductions in the future.