Aviation needs a credible long-term climate strategy 

The UN aviation body must urgently set robust, science-based long-term climate targets if the industry wants to win back the confidence of both investors and customers.

Many Europeans are losing patience with airlines’ defensive attitude towards the aviation industry’s climate impact and are taking matters into their own hands – by choosing not to fly. 

Investors are increasingly concerned about the no-fly movement or “flight shame” that is gaining momentum in Europe. While not on the official agenda, the topic is likely to surface in the corridors at this week’s crucial meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

Today,  September 24th, the 194 member countries of ICAO will meet at their triennial assembly meeting. Unlike other ICAO meetings, the Assembly is exceptional in that all documents to be discussed are available to the public – a very rare sign of openness from the opaque and industry-dominated UN agency in charge of civil aviation.

The missing link

Civil aviation is the only global sector which does not have an official climate target (the often-mentioned objective of a 50% “reduction” by 2050, using offsets, is an industry target, not an international agreement). 

Therefore, the aviation sector is in urgent need of a credible, science-based target and trajectory that will set it on a path compatible with limiting global warming to 1.5C. At the moment, the sector’s emissions are growing exponentially.[1]

Adopting a long-term goal should be the number one priority during the ICAO Assembly. Showing that they are serious about climate action, could even help win back the confidence of their customers and investors.

The EU is fighting for its sovereignty… again

Industry associations are working very hard to dismantle the European emissions trading scheme (EU ETS) that regulates pollution from planes in Europe. 

Back in December, EU member states held the line and rejected the industry push, but a new proposal on the table during the ICAO Assembly invites countries once again to recognise CORSIA as the “only global market-based measure” for aviation (paragraph 18). 

Although it cannot bar the adoption of this text, the EU can, and should, voice its disagreement with it, and reserve its right to regulate aviation emissions in Europe. In the absence of such a reserve, this resolution will open the door for airlines to ax the EU ETS. 

This would be a serious step backwards for European climate policy, at a time when the incoming Commission has made it a priority to end airlines’ tax exemptions and put an end to the free allocation of pollution permits to the aviation sector under the EU ETS. 

CORSIA, branded by the industry as the solution to the aviation sector’s climate impact, is little more than an excuse for inaction. It is still unclear which offset credits will be eligible for use under CORSIA, but regardless of their quality, CORSIA’s target is extremely weak. Tellingly, the airline industry lobby itself is much more worried about the financial impact of the flight shame movement than that of CORSIA.

[1] CO2 from aviation represents 2.5% of all CO2 emissions around the world. This is the equivalent to all emissions from Germany. So-called “non-CO2 impacts” (e.g. contrails, the clouds you see behind planes in the sky) can multiply this impact by 2-4 times and have not been taken into account in climate policies until now. ICAO itself projects that aviation emissions will grow by 300% by 2050 compared to 2015, but growth rates in 2018 were already 70% higher than what ICAO projected.