Code Red for Aviation

Code Red for Aviation

The “code red” alert for the climate from the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report has implications for aviation. Air transport’s climate-harming emissions have grown substantially from year to year over decades and
— except for 2020 — they are likely to continue to do so in the absence of much more intensive and focused action to wean the sector away from its dependence on fossil fuel. If aviation is to make its requisite contribution to the Paris Agreement targets, emissions would have to be reduced by at least half from 2019 levels by 2030 and to zero carbon by 2050.  This entails reinforced mitigation policy and action, starting right now.


Technological and operational improvements in efficiency continue to be outweighed by traffic growth and — even at the reduced traffic levels of 2020 and 2021 — CO2 continues to be added without restriction to the atmosphere, where it remains for decades. Electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft are now in prototype or on the drawing board, with the potential to reduce air transport emissions substantially in the longer term. But given that they will not have a major global market presence until close to mid-century, particularly in the long haul, there is a critical need for immediate added emphasis on other means of reducing aviation’s emissions, notably Sustainable Aviation Fuels and more effective market-based measures.

SAFs, notably waste-based fuels and synthetic e-fuels, are the primary and necessary means of bridging both time and emissions gaps. They are available right now and have the distinct advantage of being “drop-in”, requiring no significant changes in delivery or infrastructure. However, SAF production and take up are negligible, with very high costs (three or more times than fossil jet fuels) and there is an urgent need for stimulative action for scaling up and pricing down.

The primary market-based measure globally — and ICAO’s key emissions mitigation tool — is CORSIA, but this is fundamentally inadequate:

  • it is based on out-of-sector carbon offsetting rather than in-sector reductions in emissions
  • it will not have any practical effect for several more years
  • even thereafter, emissions below 2019 levels will continue to be churned out annually without redress
  • its global coverage is for only 25 percent of international aviation CO2 emissions over its 2021 to 2035 lifetime
  • it does not address non-CO2 emissions, including contrails
  • it will at no point be mandatory (ICAO Standards are frangible)
  • China, India, Russia and South Africa amongst others are by no means committed to it

Furthermore, ICAO specifies that CORSIA is to be the only global market-based measure applying to CO2 emissions from international aviation. This severely constrains those countries with greater ambition and is inconsistent with the Paris Agreement.

Climate Action Tracker has established that ICAO’s current basket of emissions mitigation measures for international aviation, and notably CORSIA, are “critically insufficient” – the worst level – and compatible with a 4°C+ world.

Nearly 24 years after being given its Kyoto Protocol mandate, ICAO still has no long-term global aspirational goal for mitigation of international aviation emissions — for the past eleven years, it has been “exploring the feasibility” of one!

Action on both SAF and market-based measures is severely inhibited by the present global governance of aviation emissions. International aviation (about 60 percent of the total) is not explicitly included in the UNFCCC’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement and is addressed only in a diffuse manner, through ICAO. The dilemma between the “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities” principle of the UNFCCC and the “equal application” provisions of the Chicago Convention has given cover too long for inaction; the Chicago provisions are not pertinent when it comes to climate change mitigation. Surely such matters as full life cycle and land use issues for fuel production, or SAF blending mandates in individual countries, should not be in the remit of ICAO?

Putting aviation in context

The aviation industry and ICAO frequently refer to a large economic ripple effect of air transport with its indirect, induced and tourism catalytic exceeding its direct contribution by a factor of as much as six. But they do not equate this with a parallel emissions multiplier. In particular, travel and tourism represent about 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, of which 40 percent come from aviation (60 percent in the case of international tourism).

At the global level and in originating markets tourism and aviation have traditionally functioned in separate silos, often with traffic growth and market share as driving motivators, when combined economic and social prosperity should be the goal. The same applies to air freight in the trade context.

Revisiting the UNFCCC-ICAO relationship

The Kyoto Protocol has now effectively lapsed and international aviation is de facto encompassed by the Paris Agreement in the same way as any other sector. ICAO should no longer be sanctioned to continue as the sole regulatory policy framer for international aviation emissions; individual countries should be free to add their own more ambitious action.

Responsibility for global climate policy on international aviation should revert from ICAO directly to the UNFCCC, with ICAO retaining technical support. On the ICAO side, an opportunity presents itself with the recent appointment of a new Secretary General who is committed to reform of the Organization.

The UNFCCC should, starting at COP26 in November:

– decide to include international aviation emissions in the Paris Agreement’s NDCs (irrespective of any change in relationship between the UNFCCC and ICAO, which should be the subject of fundamental review in the post-COP26 negotiations)

– set a target of zero carbon 2050 for international aviation, with intermediate targets to be established at five-year intervals

– initiate substantive address of non-CO2 emissions (including contrails) from international aviation with a view to the adoption of concurrent targets

– advocate greater ambition by individual Parties on aviation emissions reduction, complementary but in addition to any multilateral sectoral arrangements (such as ICAO’s CORSIA and the EU’s ETS)

– lay the groundwork for a minimum aviation environmental levy globally (cf the G7 decision on minimum corporate taxes, and the shipping associations’ recent submission to the International Maritime Organization to fund the research and development of alternative zero-carbon fuels and propulsion systems)

– strongly discourage out-of-sector carbon offsetting for aviation in favour of real in-sector reductions in emissions or of offsetting directly to SAF production and purchase.

ICAO should:

– co-operate with the UNFCCC to achieve the above

– pursue and develop its functions of “Monitoring, Reporting and Verification” of aviation emissions, including non-CO2 emissions

– reform CORSIA, aiming at application to all emissions (not just those from Carbon Neutral Growth and CO2) and in-sector offsetting (primarily to SAF) with discouragement of out-of-sector offsetting

The above would free up regional and national regulatory authorities to provide a roadmap for the early development and application of SAF (initially against a criterion of a 70 percent or greater reduction in CO2 versus kerosene on a full life cycle basis) through progressive SAF mandates; tax credits for SAF suppliers (both producers and airports); levies on aviation fossil fuels, ring-fenced to SAF production and purchase; SAF investment guarantees and green financing.

The air transport industry should recognize and plan for the reduction of aviation emissions by at least half from 2019 levels by 2030 and to zero (not net-zero) carbon by 2050.

The tourism sector (industry and destinations) should integrate international aviation emissions into assessments and actions to mitigate climate change.

Both governments and industry should foster the development of standardized carbon labelling of travel and tourism, and notably the air travel component, giving travelers, corporate entities, and shippers responsibility, accountability and choice regarding their emissions.

The bottom line

Any delay in action exacerbates the issue. There may well be a coming need to think the unthinkable and cap airline operations. For more, please see this interview with Chris Lyle, International Aviation Policy Consultant, who suggests how we might get the aviation industry to move away from fossil fuels –from ICAO to UNFCCC.


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Harold is WTM’s Responsible Tourism Advisor, he puts together the flagship Responsible Tourism programme at WTM London which attracted 4000 participants in 2020 and the programmes run at WTM Africa, WTM Latin America and Arabian Travel Market. Harold has worked on 4 continents with local communities, their governments and the inbound and outbound tourism industry. He is Managing Director of the Responsible Tourism Partnership and chairs the panels of judges for the World Responsible Tourism Awards and the other Awards in the family, Africa, India and Latin America. Harold works with industry, local communities, governments, and conservationists and undertakes consultancy and evaluations for companies, NGOs, governments, and international organisations. He is also a Director of the Institute of Place Management at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he is an Emeritus Professor, and Founder Director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism promotes the principles of the Cape Town Declaration which he drafted.

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