CORSIA: How will it affect aviation’s future?

The aviation industry, accounting for 2.5% of global carbon emissions, has a crucial part to play in reducing our Greenhouse Gas Emissions. In 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization acknowledged this responsibility by adopting plans for the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). Learn more about CORSIA in this article: the program and its phases, the challenges and the opportunities.

The UN’s 13th Sustainable Development Goal urges governments to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts” by 2030. Given that aviation accounts for 2.5% of global carbon emissions, the aviation industry has a crucial part to play in reducing our Greenhouse Gas Emissions. As many solutions proposed for aviation carbon reduction are fuel and hardware based, often untested at scale, capital-intensive, and arguably post-2030 in scalability, operational measures and market-based mechanisms are the only way short term goals can be reached. In 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization acknowledged this responsibility by adopting plans for the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA)

What is CORSIA?

Over the next 25 years, CORSIA aims to encourage aviation to invest in carbon-neutral growth and more sustainable fuels. The scheme will rely on baseline data on carbon emissions collected by airlines in 2019. Baseline measurements were originally planned to include emissions statistics from 2020, but ICAO ruled to disregard 2020 emissions due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the aviation industry. From 2021 through 2035, airlines in participating countries emitting over 10,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide on international flights will need to offset any emissions above these levels. To encourage the growth of younger airlines, offsetting requirements will be proportional to the size of each airline.

CORSIA is the world’s first international market mechanism designed to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions from an industrial sector.

Airlines will be able to purchase offsets through any of several eligible programs, including the Verified Carbon Standard and the Gold Standard, the two largest offsetting standards in the world, who provide access to verified programs. Instead of purchasing offsets, airlines can also choose to adopt CORSIA-eligible fuels, which emit lower levels of carbon. These policies will come into effect over the course of three phases.

Photo by Blake Guidry.

The Pilot Phase (2021-23)

CORSIA’s pilot phase will primarily be shaped by the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, which offers both good and bad news for the likely success of the scheme. On one hand, airlines likely will not be required to offset their emissions during this phase, as international air travel is unlikely to exceed 2019 levels. On the other hand, more countries may be incentivized to join the scheme, given these more relaxed requirements.

This phase will include 88 countries that have volunteered to participate. Among the states that have chosen to abstain from CORSIA are some of the world’s most important economies, including China, India, and Brazil. While this raises concerns about CORSIA’s ability to make an impact in its earlier years, states will have the opportunity to join the scheme throughout.

Phase 1 (2024-26)

Phase 1, like the pilot phase, will be voluntary. However, in these years, aviation is likely to see growth beyond the 2019 baseline, as economies complete their recovery from the pandemic. Airlines will need to offset this growth by the end of the phase and receive independent verification of their offsets. This verification will ensure that no offset is double-counted and that offsets do not cause harm, among other requirements.

Likewise, all emissions from the 88 voluntarily participating states must be Monitored, Reported, and Verified (known as MRV) annually. Quantifying these emissions can help airlines and governments develop a clearer understanding of the emissions trajectory of international aviation. The findings from the voluntary phases will guide the future of CORSIA, including during Phase 2.

CORSIA offsetting map. Source: aviationbenefits.org

Phase 2 (2027-35)

Beginning in 2027, CORSIA will be mandatory for all ICAO member states. During this phase, airlines will have the opportunity to implement their findings from the Pilot Phase and Phase 1, and continued Monitoring, Reporting, and Verifying will ensure the scheme is implemented to the fullest.

As in Phase 1 and the Pilot Phase, reviews will take place every three years to assess the scheme’s effectiveness. A special review will be conducted in 2032 to determine the future of CORSIA.

Caveats, Challenges, and Opportunities

CORSIA is a significant first step in the aviation industry’s attempt to tackle the climate crisis. Yet, it is only the first step. Criticism of the scheme has stressed the fact that it only accounts for carbon dioxide emissions, which comprise a small fraction of overall aviation emissions. Similarly, because CORSIA only imposes offsetting requirements on airlines that emit over 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year, emissions from most private jet flights will not be offset under the scheme. Furthermore, due to the impact of the pandemic, the future emissions trajectory will have been delayed, meaning airlines may not be able to offset as much as previously anticipated.

Furthermore, CORSIA is, at heart, an offsetting scheme rather than an emissions reduction scheme. While the International Maritime Organization has pledged to reduce shipping emissions to 50% of 2005 levels by 2050, CORSIA pledges only to hold aviation’s environmental impact constant at 2020 levels. CORSIA’s requirement that airlines offset emissions rather than eliminating them raises ethical concerns that, when combined with the scheme’s lack of clear enforcement mechanisms, could endanger its success.

Airlines have the opportunity to invest in green technologies and embrace more efficient, less pollutive methods of operating. Photo by Taiki Ishikawa.

The implementation of a monitoring system aims to hold airlines and governments accountable for their emissions. However, not all offsets are created equal, and it may prove difficult to ensure the offsets purchased in response to CORSIA are effective and legitimate. Countries are not legally bound to fulfill offset requirements, and no accountability system exists to ensure they comply with the standards of the scheme. States can also file a “reservation” regarding participation in the mandatory phase, which may create bureaucratic challenges.

Nonetheless, CORSIA is a key milestone in the journey toward a greener aviation industry. With the continued impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on travel, the years ahead will be challenging. However, they will also present numerous opportunities for airlines to invest in green technologies and embrace more efficient, less pollutive methods of operating.

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We’ll be discussing CORSIA and more at an upcoming roundtable event with #rebootaviation. The event is free – more TBC on LinkedIn.

Top image source: Photo by Jacob Mathers.

About Signol

Signol is a software platform that draws on insights from behavioral economics to encourage employees to make more efficient decisions. Signol provides personalized feedback through multiple communication channels, as well as data analysis for managers. In aviation, Signol aims to use behavioral "nudges" and incentives to reduce pollution and fuel waste and cut operating costs.

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