Airlines are lobbying to rewrite the rules of a global agreement designed to tackle aviation emissions, with the coronavirus outbreak expected to make its targets tougher to meet.
Campaigners accused airlines of attempting to “dodge their obligations”, but the industry said it was “a matter of survival”, with most international travel currently frozen in the Covid-19 crisis.
The International Air Transport Association (Iata) has called on the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to amend the carbon offsetting and reduction scheme for international aviation (Corsia), or risk airlines pulling out.
Under the system, airlines have to pay to offset any growth in carbon emissions above a baseline set by the average emissions of 2019 and 2020. The grounding of aircraft during the pandemic means the baseline will be far lower than envisaged, and the carbon targets much more challenging, if Corsia goes ahead without changes.
Iata has told ICAO that the baseline “must be adjusted to ensure the sustainable development of international aviation and avoid an inappropriate economic burden on the sector”. It said some nations could pull out of the agreement if the costs were too high.
Before the Covid-19 crisis, estimates showed that airlines were likely to have to spend between GBP4bn and GBP18bn a year globally on carbon credits by 2035 to satisfy the Corsia rules. A report by the Green Alliance, before the coronavirus lockdown, found that this was not enough to meet the goals set out in the Paris agreement.
The ICAO council had signed off on the Corsia plans on 13 March, gaining plaudits from green campaigners for sticking with its pledges on the climate crisis instead of shelving them in the face of the pandemic. However, airlines’ commitment now looks distinctly shaky.
The US Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a long-time mover behind the Corsia scheme, argued that the existing Corsia rules allowed enough flexibility for governments to address the “suppressed activity in 2020, without any need to renegotiate the measure in a drawn-out political discussion”.
James Elliott, a Green Alliance policy adviser, said: “Calls to reduce burdens on the [aviation] sector as it recovers are understandable. But the climate emergency also presents an urgent challenge which must be addressed. If the sector cannot find ways to rebuild itself sustainably after the Covid-19 crisis, it will face painful disruption again in the future as its part in the climate emergency has to be addressed.
“If Corsia is amended, it must be done in a way which also strengthens its ambition, with targets to limit and reduce actual emissions levels.”
Greenpeace UK’s executive director, John Sauven, said: “At the same time as they’re asking for huge government bailouts, airlines are also lobbying furiously to dodge their obligations towards cutting carbon emissions.
“Offsetting schemes have always been big polluters’ favourite excuse to carry on polluting while shifting responsibility for their emissions to someone else. The industry’s current proposal would only make the buck-passing easier.”
Iata denied that it was backing away from Corsia. Its director general, Alexandre de Juniac, said: “We haven’t given up our environmental goals … After the recovery we will continue to reduce emissions and noise footprints – that hasn’t changed.
“This crisis is a matter of survival for the industry … We are asking governments for urgent help. Of course we will comply with our environmental obligations. Before that, we have to survive – or there will be no issue with the environment, the industry will have disappeared.”