ICAO under pressure to agree a Long-term Carbon Goal

The 41st International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Triennial General Assembly commenced on 27 September and headed into ten days of difficult negotiations. The feasibility of a setting a long-term aspirational carbon reduction goal may determine whether international aviation has a sustainable future.

Talking the Talk

The item at the top of the agenda for the 2,000 Ministers and high-ranking government officials is how to tackle international aviation emissions reductions. It may not be an exaggeration to say that some government officials have made lifetime careers out of discussing aviation emissions reduction issues during the past 25 years.

ICAO has yet to reach a stated position on a Long-term Aspirational Goal (LTAG), and what waypoints and KPIs will be required to maintain a carbon reduction flightpath to whatever target the ICAO Assembly considers achievable. The credibility of ICAO is now at stake as the world cannot wait another three years for the next Assembly in 2025 before a meaningful political decision is made.

The organisation also needs to demonstrate how it intends to ratchet up ambition under its Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), which nearly two years after its introduction, has yet to offset or reduce a single tonne of CO2, and is unlikely to do so before 2027 at the earliest. CORSIA is currently scheduled to terminate in 2035 and relies on offsetting CO2 emissions from international aviation, one of the fastest growing sources of emissions growth in any industrial sector.

At Sixes and Sevens

Whilst the United Nations continues to implore all States to do more to prevent an emerging global climate induced catastrophe, it’s subsidiary organisations in maritime (the International Maritime Organisation (IMO)) and ICAO appear to be operating in a parallel universe. The IMO has set a LTAG of a 50% carbon emissions reduction by 2050 which is not aligned with the Paris Agreement ambition of 100% net zero carbon reduction target by 2050. The Paris Agreement also requires maintaining anthropogenic induced global heating to well below 2°C (with an ambition of 1.5°C) compared to pre-industrial levels.

Ahead of the 41st meeting of the ICAO Assembly, ICAO’s Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP) had developed three scenarios to inform discussions on the long-term goal. However, the scenarios lead to CO2 emission levels in a diverse range of 70% below 2019 levels to 50% above those levels (200–950 MtCO2) by 2050. The CAEP scenarios do not address aviation’s non-CO2 emissions and other impacts. Climate Action Tracker (CAT), a highly regarded scientific research group rates the CAEP target range as ‘Highly insufficient’ at best and ‘Critically insufficient’ at worst, consistent with at least 3˚C of warming, if not 4˚C.

Long-term Aspirational Goal

So, is there any possibility of an ICAO arriving on the scene any time soon? That is likely to depend on ICAO’s ability to agree on a long-term aspirational goal that is aligned to Paris net-zero and then having the determination to achieve it. Anything less than 2050 net-zero and a commitment to align with 1.5°C is likely to lack credibility and would risk derailing any science-based carbon reduction trajectory. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) and a number of leading international airlines have set out to achieve compatibility with the Paris Agreement net-zero commitments. Should ICAO fail to maintain a similar flightpath, then the international aviation industry’s reputation may remain tarnished and be accused by its detractors of flying too close to the Sun.

Formation Flying or Flying Solo?

The policy steps recently taken by the U.S. such as passing the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Democrats’ climate bill, has given the country more credibility as a climate leader at the ICAO Assembly. The U.S. believes the problem can be solved by technology, including the scaling up of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) production and the design and construction of more efficient aircraft.

Meanwhile the EU will consider if ICAO’s ambitions are compatible with Europe’s ‘Fit for 55’ proposals to reduce carbon emissions by 55% by 2030 (benchmarked against 2009 CO2 emissions). If not, the EU may consider re-introducing EU ETS compliance for international flights, but perhaps this time around for departing flights only. Should Europe decide to take such a bold step, then it would be likely to create an increased and perhaps systemic credit risk and fleet lien exposure for the aircraft lessors and banking community.

The question remains whether ICAO will do enough to protect its integrity and the reputation of the international aviation industry, or will it be a ‘Don’t Look Up’ moment. Hopefully we shouldn’t have to wait long to find out.

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