A global climate deal for aviation! So what next?

James Beard of WWF outlines the strengths and weaknesses of the carbon offsetting plan agreed for air travel – and work needed to align it with climate goals

(Pic: Pixabay)


The 191 countries in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) have agreed a carbon offsetting scheme for international aviation.

It has drawn self-congratulatory bluster from some quarters and caustic criticism from others.

Let’s take a look at what has actually been achieved, how we got here, and where we need to go next.

What has been achieved?

Here are the good points: This agreement is a historic moment for international cooperation on climate change. It’s the first global climate measure to be agreed outside of the UN climate talks. It’s the first global carbon cap on an industry’s net CO2 emissions. It vastly increases the pressure on the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to act on the other big omission in the Paris Agreement: international shipping.

Here are the bad points: It’s just offsetting. And so it doesn’t send a strong price signal to the industry to innovate or to passengers to fly less. Its nice-sounding target of “carbon neutral growth from 2020” (CNG2020) is actually pretty weak, and ICAO is only set to achieve around three quarters of that goal (so far). To add insult to injury, the last minute removal of reference to the Paris Agreement in setting long term emissions goals sends a bad signal at the very moment the world passes the Paris “entry-into-force” threshold.

And here’s the balanced answer: It’s progress. A step forward. But whether this agreement spurs or hinders greater action on aviation emissions depends on how it is understood and implemented. WWF views it as a foundation we must build on and cautions anyone tempted to proclaim the dawn of eco-friendly flying that there is much, much more work still ahead.

How did we get here?

The journey started in 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol first assigned responsibility for international transport emissions to ICAO and IMO. Since then, emissions from international aviation have increased by over 50%.

Market-based measures, such as the carbon offsetting scheme agreed, are nothing new in ICAO. They’ve been talking about them for a decade at least. But it took courageous action from the EU – temporarily including international flights in its own carbon market – to force the commitment to action at ICAO’s last Assembly in 2013. This laid the ground for last week’s agreement.

WWF has been on the inside of these talks since before 2012, when we joined the International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation (ICSA). ICSA was set up in 1999 to push for action on aircraft noise and climate change through ICAO’s environment committee.

Within that, WWF is working on task forces to ensure that the offset credits and alternative fuels credited under the deal deliver real emissions reductions and support sustainable development. Unfortunately, these talks are entirely (and arguably unnecessarily) confidential. We think they should be opened up to wider transparent debate in order for the public to have confidence in the outcomes.

These talks are also often downplayed as “technical” when they are in fact highly political. For example, the most dramatic, last-minute change to the Assembly Resolution last week was a play by Brazil to shape which offset credits are allowed into the scheme (which ultimately improved the overall outcome by explicitly highlighting the need for “no double counting”). Meanwhile Indonesia is pushing for concrete support on alternative fuels, with ICAO convening an extraordinary conference next year to come up with new policy ideas. ICAO looks set to be the next major battleground for biofuel sustainability.


WWF also took part in ICAO’s high level diplomatic meetings, which mainly dealt with the thorniest elements of the negotiations around the balance of responsibilities between rich and poor countries.

But this illuminating article from Green Air last summer suggests that the terms of this debate had been pre-cooked in another ICAO group, the Environmental Advisory Group (EAG), where industry observers were permitted but civil society was not.

It came down to how responsibility for growth in the sector’s emissions was to be shared between airlines. The original ICAO proposal suggested individual carriers should offset – at least in part – the growth in their own emissions from 2020. Developing countries felt this was unfair, as they were less responsible for historic emissions but expected a rapid expansion of air travel.

This was one of the key bones of contention right up until and through the Assembly. The Assembly proposal was to make all airlines offset on the basis of the sector-wide growth rate to 2030, followed by minimum “individual” shares of 20% and 70% from 2030 and 2033 respectively. This formula was introduced by the US in August, despite substantial opposition from many developing countries who preferred the Council President’s permanent 100% “sectoral” approach.

In the corridors of the Assembly, there was much speculation that this formula might change, but no breakthrough was found. As a result, several other elements did change as countries sought alternative concessions.

One of these changes ultimately improved the environmental integrity of the text, as Brazil, the US and Europe worked out some beefed up language on offset quality and no double counting (sounds techy but it’s a huge deal – making sure the carbon offsets are extra to countries’ domestic mitigation efforts under the Paris Agreement).

The other major change was much less positive: the loss of any direct link between ICAO’s task to set its own long term emissions goal and the long terms temperature goals of the Paris Agreement. It is not clear if this can be revisited before the shift to individual share starts in 2030.

Volunteers needed

The final fundamental piece of the fairness puzzle was the question of which countries were covered by the scheme, and here it seems that the risky move in August to switch to voluntary participation until 2027 may have actually paid off. WWF congratulates the 65 countries that have already opted into the deal, covering around 77% of the CNG2020 emissions goal to 2035. Special mention to Burkina Faso for its passionate statement (en français) in the Assembly hall.

This is a broader base than under previous versions of the text that included mandatory coverage criteria based on aviation activity and economic development (although still 23% short of CNG2020, and way short of what the Paris climate objectives requires). Countries can still strengthen the scheme by signalling their participation in it from day one – perhaps at the climate talks in Marrakech next month.

Where do we go next?

As EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc said after the gavel fell: “It is not Mission Accomplished.” In fact, the next step on the journey is in Europe, where over the coming months we expect the EU to defend its right to use the region’s carbon market to go beyond ICAO’s lowest common denominator goal of CNG2020.

Back to ICAO’s scheme, we need to complete the work on eligibility criteria for offsets and alternative fuels, to make sure that only those that achieve real emissions reductions and support sustainable development are credited in the system. There’s urgent work to finish up on capacity building, registries, and monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV). Ongoing work in the UN climate negotiations to figure out accounting rules for new market mechanisms and countries’ progress towards their Paris Agreement commitments is also crucial for tackling the “double counting” point mentioned above.

Looking a little further ahead, we need to prepare for the scheme’s first review in 2022 – the first opportunity to increase its ambition in line with the Paris temperature goals, and to potentially address some of the outstanding equity concerns.

From offsetting to in-sector action

The Assembly also rubber-stamped a CO2 Standard for aircraft, which will need tightening over time in order to drive innovation beyond business as usual. ICAO also does not yet address the non-CO2 impacts of aviation, such as NOx, water vapour and induced cloudiness. Adding in all these effects is estimated to at least double the overall global warming impact of flying, so this needs to change.

Above all, we need to get that long term goal for aviation emissions, and despite the mixed signals from the Assembly, we need to ensure that goal is consistent with “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C”.

Finally, let’s not forget the power to reduce aviation emissions outside the UN. Ultimately we need more courageous decisions. From governments, to create jobs in green infrastructure rather than endlessly expanding airports. From businesses, to realise the productivity benefits of shifting from air travel to rail and video conferencing. And for individuals, the carbon offset scheme does not mean “eco-friendly flying” just yet, so for green holidays, the train or ferry or staying local is the way to go.

James Beard is a climate and energy specialist at the World Wildlife Fund

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