Too Soft on Aviation

UN’s CORSIA and Vision for the Future of aircraft emissions won’t do enough to decrease global warming.

Last month’s reappointment of Dr. Fang Liu as the Secretary General of the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) illustrates a continued commitment to the UN’s sustainable development goals, including on climate action. In October 2017, ICAO released their Vision for the Future, which aims to reduce lifecycle emissions from aircraft by 33% of 2020 levels by 2050. The reduction plan involves introducing more sustainable aviation fuels.

This is consistent with ICAO’s push to cap global emissions of civil aircraft at 2020 levels, as specified in its Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), that requires offsets for every year that an airline operator exceeds emissions from 2019-2020 levels. If successful, these groundbreaking guidelines would dramatically reduce aircraft emissions. But the long-term benchmarks pose challenges for industry players to be truly effective in meeting the intended emissions goals.

Aviation accounts for about 2% of total carbon dioxide (CO2) global emissions. Furthermore, emissions from aircraft contribute to about 3.5% of total radiative forcing (a measure of climate change) from CO­2­ and other greenhouse gases (GHGs). This number is expected to grow in the coming years. The aviation industry has worked to combat this issue, with energy efficiency in aircraft improving by 24% since 2004. However, these measures to improve efficiency face significant hurdles.

If both CORSIA and the Vision for the Future are successful in all of their commitments, total emissions from civilian aircraft in 2050 would still be approximately 70% of today’s current levels. However, with the global demand for passengers expected to double over the next 20 years, further steps must be taken to ensure that efficiency gains will have a net positive effect on total emission reductions.

While the Vision for the Future suggests improvements in fuel, and CORSIA targets airline operators, neither plan has strategies in place to reduce emissions by improving aircraft technology and design. There are also few incentives other than small fees for extra emissions in the cap-and-trade component of the deal, that may not do much to stop increasing emissions. By 2035, it is estimated that CORSIA will cost only 1.8% of aircraft industry revenue.

Strategies could be provided to be used by airline operators to improve their air traffic management (which is also a recent focus of ICAO) or for governments to collaborate with manufacturers and research institutes to improve technology, such as with the Continuous Lower Energy, Emissions, and Noise (CLEEN) Program in the United States. Creating an easier path for implementing advanced technology may increase the odds of countries and airline operators to improve efficiency.

The Vision for the Future will regularly assess the progress of the program, but similar to CORSIA—in which participation is optional until 2024—the flexibility in its goals may result in an increase in allowed emissions if the airline industry is slow to reach its targets. While it is unwise to impose strict limitations, it is crucial to minimize the flexibility of emissions goals to ensure success.

ICAO is certainly on the right path, as it recognized emissions as an issue in the aircraft industry and acted to implement positive change. But the timelines of both CORSIA and the Vision for the Future are spread out over several decades. They lack guidelines for short-term change.

ICAO guidelines should be stricter and lay out a more formal strategy for individual nations, airline operators, and aircraft manufactures to collaborate in this venture of reducing aircraft emissions. Pushing for more advanced technologies or establishing regulations could make ICAO’s goals more attainable, and have a more significant impact on reducing air travel’s effect on global warming.

Benjamin Paren

Alumni Research Fellow
Benjamin Paren is an alumni research fellow at the Kleinman Center and a postdoctoral research associate in the Research Laboratory of Electronics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.