International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) target
|ICAO target||Formulation of target||Carbon neutral growth from 2020 onwards|
International Air Transport Association (IATA) target
|IATA 2050 target||Formulation of target||Net zero carbon by 2050|
In 2013, the ICAO Assembly set an aspirational goal for international aviation of carbon neutral growth from 2020 levels (ICAO, 2013). Carbon neutral growth means that net CO2 emissions from international aviation remain constant compared to the baseline – set at the average emissions level in 2019-2020 (paragraph 11, ICAO Assembly, 2016).
Due to COVID-19, aviation emissions in 2020 were substantially lower than anticipated, which would have meant the baseline for carbon neutral growth would have been lower than anticipated and the target more ambitious.
However, in June 2020, following a request from IATA, the ICAO Council changed the reference year for CORSIA’s pilot phase to 2019, missing an opportunity to commit to a more ambitious target (IATA, 2020; ICAO, 2020d). Based on the outcome of the CORSIA periodic review, which starts in 2022, the ICAO Council will decide on the rules for CORSIA’s first and second phases starting in 2024.
Because the baseline for 2024 and beyond is currently uncertain, we use a range for the baseline. Emissions in 2019 form the upper bound and average emissions in 2019 and 2020 the lower bound. ICAO reports that 2019 emissions amounted to 606 MtCO2 and 2020 emissions to 265 MtCO2.
We rate the target of carbon neutral growth from 2020 as ‘Critically insufficient’. Under the CAT’s rating methodology, the upper end of the target range in 2030 alone would be rated ‘Highly insufficient’. Because the international aviation sector plans to rely on emission units and alternative fuels that are unlikely to deliver sufficient real emission reductions, we downgrade the rating to ‘Critically insufficient’. If the baseline were to be the average of emissions in 2019 and 2020, the 2030 target emission levels would fall in the ‘Insufficient’ range. The CAT would downgrade this rating to ‘Highly insufficient’ for the reasons mentioned above.
A further shortcoming of ICAO’s approach is it does not address indirect GHG emissions and impacts– such as NOX and contrail cirrus. These emissions and impacts are responsible for an estimated two thirds of aviation’s effective radiative forcing impact (Lee et al., 2021).
To be Paris-Agreement compatible, carbon emissions from international aviation should be below 300 MtCO2 in 2030 and decrease to zero by 2060. The sector should also take measures to substantially reduce non-CO2 climate impacts. The carbon neutral growth goal is insufficient to reach these required emission levels.
Impact of COVID-19 on the CORSIA baseline
Researchers found that with 2019 emissions as the baseline for carbon neutral growth, aircraft operators face limited to no offsetting obligations in CORSIA’s pilot phrase from 2021 to 2023 (Schneider and Graichen, 2020). If the rules had remained unchanged and average 2019-2020 emissions had been taken as the baseline, COVID-19 would not have substantially changed the offsetting requirements that airlines face under the scheme because the lower baseline and lower future emissions would have cancelled each other out (Schneider and Graichen, 2020).