Aviation Industry throws out climate agreement

ICAO Council Bows to Aviation Industry Request to Rewrite First Three Years of Climate Program Rules

EDF statement from Annie Petsonk, International Counsel

(June 30, 2020) The 36-member Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) today unilaterally changed the rules for the first three years of the agency’s flagship climate program, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). The Council decided that if, in 2020, aviation emissions fall by more than 30% below 2019 levels, the program’s rules will automatically change, in effect suspending airlines’ obligations to offset a portion of their carbon pollution.    

"The coronavirus pandemic has caused pain and loss around the world – for families, for communities and for working people. Airlines have been hit hard. One effect of the decrease in air travel is that carbon emissions from aviation have declined sharply. And now the industry is at an inflection point.

“As airlines scramble to recover from the COVID-19 crisis, they can’t afford to ignore the looming global crisis of climate change. Real leadership means setting the aviation sector on a path toward net zero climate impacts as swiftly as possible. The sooner that the costs of carbon control are included in the costs of doing business, the sooner new technologies will be developed. 

“Instead, ICAO’s Council decided to backtrack on its commitment to ‘carbon neutral growth from 2020,’ so that airlines need only offset emissions above 2019 levels for the first three years of the program. If emissions do not rise above 2019 levels, airlines are wholly excused from offset obligations.   

“Changing baselines is a bad precedent for the development of carbon markets in other countries and sectors. Ironically, it means that airlines will lose the first-mover advantage they had sought to secure through CORSIA, as other carbon market actors will beat them to the punch on long-term supply contracts.

“With offset obligations likely suspended for the pilot phase, today’s decision leaves the field wide open for governments – at local, state and national levels – to require airlines to integrate climate action into their economic recovery. That could, in turn, leave the industry with the very patchwork of regulations it fears.

“That the Council decided to arrogate to itself the authority to make this rule change, without consulting the full 190+ ICAO Member States that adopted CORSIA to begin with, sets a troubling precedent for the legitimacy of future decision-making by the UN’s aviation body.

“Today’s Council decision does not alter ICAO’s standards for carbon credits, including its March decision on credit eligibility, or its rules for sustainable aviation fuels. These standards are important precedents for the Paris Agreement and emerging legislation. As airlines try to woo back customers concerned about both COVID-19 and carbon pollution, civil society will hold airlines accountable to the CORSIA standards for fuels and carbon credits.”

·         Annie Petsonk, International Counsel



The rules established for CORSIA in 2016 by ICAO’s 190+ country General Assembly required airlines, starting in 2021, to offset emissions of international flights above a baseline set at the average of 2019-2020 emissions. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) had asked the ICAO Council to change the rules so airlines would only have to offset when their pollution levels rise above 2019 levels, citing the unexpected slump in aviation emissions in 2020 due to COVID-19, and the greater carbon offset requirements that could result from the industry’s recovery.

Prior to the Council’s decision today, research had found that robust implementation of CORSIA could significantly reduce international aviation’s warming impact, and that the associated future warming from the carbon emissions of international aviation may be reduced by roughly 90 percent if the sector pursues further decarbonization by mid- or end-of-century.

For more on CORSIA, visit edf.org/aviation. Read our latest aviation blogs at blogs.edf.org/climate411.


Environmental Defense Fund (edf.org), a leading international nonprofit organization, creates transformational solutions to the most serious environmental problems. EDF links science, economics, law, and innovative private-sector partnerships. Connect with us on Climate 411, Twitter and Facebook.


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