On October 6, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) finalized a plan to curb international airline emissions. The deal, known as the Carbon Offset and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), was adopted by the 191 governments that belong to ICAO. The deal calls for sustainable growth and development within the industry, by improving fuel efficiency, setting carbon emission standards for aircraft built after 2020, and capping total emissions at 2020 levels by 2035. Starting in 2021, the system will initially be voluntary, but it will become mandatory for all member countries by 2027 (some countries, such as the least developed ones, will receive a special exemption).

So far, 66 nations have signed on to voluntarily participate in CORSIA from the outset, with the notable exceptions of India, Brazil, and Russia. According to sources close to the matter, India and Brazil have reservations about the deal, having voiced their concern that its provisions would encumber growth among developing countries. “We are disappointed [that they withheld joining] because other developing nations like China, Indonesia, Zambia and Kenya have signed,” noted Alexandre de Juniac, the Director General and Chief Executive Officer of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade association representing 268 airlines. According to IATA, India is set to become the third largest aviation market by 2026.

The deal only covers international travel, as domestic travel is regulated at the country level. Globally, air travel accounts for 3 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. While this number may seem nominal, it is important to put it in perspective: emissions from airlines are equivalent to the aggregate annual emissions of Germany, which is the sixth highest-emitting country in the world. According to some forecasts, airline emissions are projected to triple by 2050.

The deal's strongest proponents are the airlines themselves, as they realize that meeting targets set at the international level will be much easier and less expensive than adhering to a myriad of domestic policies. In addition, the deal allows the purchase of carbon offsets, which will further reduce the cost of compliance. The limiting factor in mitigating carbon emissions in the airline industry is the incredible cost associated with hurried development and technological turnover. Typically, airplanes are replaced every 20 years and, as a result, any technological improvements can only spread very slowly through fleets. However, accelerating the replacement rate to speed the spread of environmental advancements would be very costly. Therefore, instead of depending on technological progress, the deal stipulates that airlines can purchase offsets if they surpass their carbon caps.

Due to its reliance on offsets, some environmentalists are critical of the deal, reasoning that it will only allow airlines to shift the responsibility to third parties through carbon offset programs, but not actually decrease industry emissions internally. In addition, many of the key details have yet to be worked out, which has generated skepticism. For instance, ICAO has not yet determined transparency guidelines to enforce the disclosure of offsets, nor has it specified which carbon offset programs will be recognized.

Another source of concern is that airlines will likely pass on all or a portion of the costs of their carbon offsets to their customers. But prices are not expected to rise significantly: based on data released by IATA, the cost of a ticket for airline customers is only expected to increase by approximately $5.50. Vera Pardee, a Senior Counsel for the Climate Law Institute, notes that airlines are already including a surcharge in response to high oil prices experienced in the past; in theory, the extra profits resulting from the surcharge are insurance in case the oil price spikes again. Pardee proposes that those funds could instead go toward either keeping prices stable for customers once CORSIA is implemented, or toward the sustainable development projects that the deal references.


Author: Sasha Galbreath