Just over a year ago, the aviation industry – via the UN body ICAO – was patting itself on the back after reaching an agreement on a global scheme to address carbon dioxide emissions.
Today, the progress on CORSIA continues under a timetable that many stakeholders believe could be excessively tight. But whatever happens with the roll-out process, CORSIA’s major flaw could eventually turn out to be its fundamental lack of ambition. That has been recognised by industry bodies such as IATA, which firmly supports the scheme but also states that loftier targets will be necessary.
The warning signs are in the name “CORSIA”; it does not do what it says on the tin. The “R” stands for “reduction” in reference to emissions, but that is a misnomer. Offsetting carbon emissions as a means of addressing climate change is not unique to airlines, but as a concept it theoretically allows emissions to keep growing for as long as offset credits are available.
It is difficult to escape the feeling that while achieving agreement on global self-regulation was an impressive outcome, aviation is left with something that can only ever be a bare-minimum requirement.
With airline capacity and traffic forecast to keep growing – and quickly – defenders of CORSIA could end up looking misguided if they cite it as aviation’s “silver bullet” on emissions.
To put it another way, offsetting all emissions growth based on a 2019-20 average is saying “we’re doing something”; but CORSIA is likely to fail as a way of saying “we’re doing enough”. Perhaps it was foolhardy to expect anything more from a scheme that needed to keep such a diverse range of stakeholders happy.
In that context, CORSIA has to be one part of a package of measures, as most industry players acknowledge.
Meaningful technological progress, for example, will be vital to making a real difference. Even when considering the fuel-burn improvements achieved with newer aircraft, the sheer amount of new metal taking to skies in the coming decades will outpace those efficiency gains, however you spin the numbers.
But genuine progress is still years away despite excitement around developments such as the recently unveiled E-Fan X hybrid airliner project. Even when breakthroughs occur, the life-cycle of current-generation aircraft means it would take years – maybe decades – for that technology to become ubiquitous.
Therefore, in what will be unwelcome news for airlines keen to work under a single regime, the wider package of measures is likely to include more-ambitious national and regional carbon dioxide reduction schemes – not just because CORSIA only covers international flights.
The European Commission, for example, has hinted that CORSIA might not be enough to meet Paris climate change goals. That is why the EU’s Emissions Trading System will co-exist in the initial stages of the ICAO scheme, and could continue indefinitely.
Such complications probably look like a frustrating inconvenience to an industry full of carriers excited by the prospect of hoovering up millions of travellers who currently undertake long-distance travel by bus, for example.
But it is important to consider the advantages of being more ambitious than CORSIA. Indeed, without a strong and actionable story on how emissions will actually be reduced in real terms, the airline industry could well end up a pariah and exposed to calls for the imposition of harsher measures.
That is why carriers should not be scared of CORSIA possibly proving to be a white elephant. As the years go by, it will be important to acknowledge the scheme’s shortcomings to ensure the aviation industry can lead the debate about what comes next.
Existing and new measures could eventually combine with technological breakthroughs, allowing aviation to grow in the knowledge it is genuinely reducing its environmental impact.
Then, for all its obvious shortcomings, CORSIA could one day be remembered as the first chapter in a good-news story for aviation.