Airline Environmental Commitments Are Less Strict Under CORSIA Changes

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The aviation industry is slowly recovering from the travel slump caused by the coronavirus. As flight schedules ramp up, they have a knock-on effect on CO2 emissions. Earlier this week, the ICAO voted to reduce the CORSIA baseline, substantially weakening the proposal. We take a look at what this means going forward.

Airlines wing with emissions
Airlines will now have less stringent CORSIA measures. Photo: Getty Images

CORSIA and COVID-19

With developments in COVID-19 disturbing so much of the aviation industry’s activity, the spotlight on climate change has paled into insignificance. While the industry is still committed to its environmental goals, there is now more of a focus on getting airlines back up and running to avoid their demise. That’s understandable. Without our world’s airlines, tourism and economies suffer.

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However, recent developments now look set to backtrack on the industry’s commitment to the environment. On June 30th, members from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) met to discuss the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). The issue? A shifting industry dynamic that would mean CORSIA commitments would be too difficult to maintain.

Qantas 747 contrails from below
CORSIA baselines have shifted making them weaker. Is it a good thing? Photo: Sergey Kustov via Wikimedia Commons

The ICAO backtracks on CORSIA

Back in 2016, the 193 member state ICAO adopted CORSIA as a way to drive down increasing aviation emissions. While aviation only accounts for 2% of global CO2 emissions, data has forecast that this will steadily increase as air travel becomes more popular. That was before coronavirus hit. Growth, however, is still expected, yet it will come a few years down the line.

At the time of its inception, CORSIA was hailed as the do-gooder for the industry. It demonstrated commitment to real change and placed value on the environment. Despite this, some earmarked the agreement as weak. Nevertheless, the implementation of the CORSIA regulation was undeniably powerful as it would bind airlines for years to come.

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The project is now in its pilot phase; however, it has already changed. Initially, CORSIA has set the baseline for carbon emissions as an average of emissions produced in 2019 and 2020. Under the initial agreement, airlines should keep their emissions below this average.

Passengers with masks in airport
Coronavirus has severely reduced emissions that impact CORSIA. Photo: Getty Images

Of course, with such little activity over the past few months contributing to a drastic decrease in emissions for 2020 as a whole, keeping emissions that low in the ensuing years is seen to be unrealistic. As a result, the ICAO has removed 2020 estimates from the CORSIA baseline and instead, airlines will need to keep their emissions below 2019 level and purchase offsets for any emissions above that amount.

“Inappropriate economic burden.”

In a statement released on June 30th by the ICAO, the organization concluded,

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“The impact of the COVID-19, significantly lowering international aviation operations, traffic and emissions in 2020, would lead to a consequential reduction in the CORSIA baseline, calculated as the average of 2019 and 2020 emissions from the sector. This, in turn, would create an inappropriate economic burden to aeroplane operators, due to the need to offset more emissions although they are flying less and generating [fewer] emissions.”

BA flies with contrails
Adding the 2020 baseline means that CORSIA targets would be too low. Photo: Getty Images

According to this new legislation, if airlines can offset their emissions below 2019 levels for the ensuing three years, then they will be exempt from further offsets. Some within the industry have hailed this CORSIA alteration as a great success. Proponents of the change include the IATA and Airlines For America who both see this as a much-needed fix. But why?

Why is the CORSIA change so good?

The ICAO’s decision certainly comes with some immediate benefits for airlines. By reducing the CORSIA baseline to 2019 emissions figures only, airlines are not forced to commit to unrealistically low targets. This means that they will be in a better financial position going forward.

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One of the issues for the industry was that some air carriers would be hampered by the fiscal burden of purchasing additional carbon offsets. Since they wouldn’t be able to reach the low emissions targets with alterations to their fleets, they would rely on buying carbon offsets to achieve their commitments.

A320neo, Airbus
Investing in new aircraft will not be enough for CORSIA targets. Photo: Getty Images

On top of that, there is now less pressure for airlines that are starting up again after the pandemic. The key focus right now is trying to serve the existing demand and foster even more air travel. It’s vital for survival that airlines can get as many passengers as possible across the most routes possible. Without the pressure of environmental commitments, airlines will feel less constrained by a need to produce fewer emissions.

Primarily, this new process works to allow airlines to build back their offering and focus on the environment in due course. However, it won’t be exactly like that. Commitments to the environment run deeper than surface level. Many airlines are already making fleet enhancements and investing in new technologies to reduce CO2 emissions. They’re not all doing it because they have to, but because they care. This will not change with the new CORSIA measures.

Backlash from environmentalists

There has of course been a myriad of backlash from environmentalists on the ICAO’s decision. While the body praised its decision, many have disagreed with the approach suggesting that weakening CORSIA measures will not be beneficial.

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The main issue is that many did not think that CORSIA measures were strong enough, to begin with. While many airlines provide carbon offsetting programs, very few have high customer engagement. The consensus is that more needs to be done.

What the changes to the CORSIA baseline now seem to represent is that the industry is prioritizing growth over environmental commitments. As the baseline is reduced, airlines will not have to try any harder to hit emissions targets. They can simply continue as usual and almost guarantee that their emissions will be lower in the coming years.

Woman with
CORSIA’s new agreement makes the environment secondary to growth. Photo: Getty Images

While the ICAO had feared that low 2020 figures would be hard to maintain, it looks as though the aviation industry will not recover fully until 2024 according to IATA predictions. That means, in the coming years, airlines will be smaller wither fewer aircraft and a reduced network. Operating in this way would actually make a 2019 and 2020 baseline for CORSIA easier to follow.

Though opinion is divided, the decision has been made: CORSIA now has a more manageable baseline.

How do you react to this news? Is this a win for the environment or for airlines? Have your say in the comments. 

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