Next for Airline Emissions Deal: Turning Goal to Action

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By Peter Menyasz

Oct. 12 — After reaching a landmark agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions from international flights, the global community next week begins diving into the work of translating the goal into action.

The International Civil Aviation Organization's Global Market-Based Measures Task Force will meet at ICAO headquarters in Montreal, where on Oct. 6 some 190 nations agreed to implement a fully functional emissions offset system for international flights by 2020.

The task force will start finalizing which emissions credits qualify as offsets to growth in aviation emissions, and how airline emissions are monitored, recorded and verified.

“I'm confident that we can do it,” said Annie Petsonk, international counsel with the Environmental Defense Fund. “I'm also clear-eyed that it's going to take some work.”

U.S., Canada, China, EU to Participate

The agreement reached Oct. 6 at ICAO’s 39th general assembly, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), calls for a global market-based offset system to help the aviation industry meet its goal of carbon-neutral growth after 2020.

Baseline emissions levels will be measured in 2019–2020, after which airlines will purchase offsets for any increase in emissions from that level.

The plan starts with a voluntary phase-in from 2020 through 2026, during which only routes between countries that choose to participate will be covered. At least 65 countries have said they will participate in the voluntary phase, including the U.S., Canada, China and all 28 European Union countries.

ICAO estimates that the voluntary phase will cover about 86.5 percent of international aviation activity.

Beginning in 2027, participation in the scheme will be mandatory, according to the ICAO agreement, although the UN and its agencies lack enforcement power.

Offsets and Politics

The task force that meets next week has had preliminary talks on the offset system during the past three years. Now that it has the buy–in of the global community, it will adopt the work “in earnest,” said Nancy Young, vice president of environmental affairs with industry group Airlines for America, which represents airlines including American Airlines Inc., Southwest Airlines Co. and United Airlines Inc.

One early goal is to meet the timelines established under the agreement, Young said Oct. 11.

Agreement on which emissions credits airlines will be able to use as offsets could be tricky, Young told Bloomberg BNA. There are formal United Nations processes to create such offsets, and several well-respected independent programs, but it is an area where politics can become an issue, she said.

‘Differences of Opinion.'

Carbon offsets are generated in a specific year, and there are questions about whether they should be available for purchase forever, or whether there should be a “vintage” requirement that forces airlines to buy offsets from new or recent projects, she said.

Environmental projects that produce offsets are often supported by governments, so there may be political considerations. “There will be differences of opinion,” Young said.

“There's a lot of hard stuff ahead, but there were some pretty hard things getting to this point,” the Environmental Defense Fund's Petsonk told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 6, only hours after the historic agreement was reached.

The agreement includes offset provisions that are voluntary and others that are mandatory, as well as some that will affect national and subnational emissions markets, so considerable effort will be needed to ensure that there is no double-counting and that the quality of credits is high, she said.

Measuring Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Young and Petsonk agreed that working out the details of measuring, recording and verifying the industry's emissions will be time-consuming, but shouldn't be as controversial.

U.S. airlines are “keenly interested” in those issues, as it will be important to make sure that all airlines are subject to the same rules, Young said. That work will need to be completed in 2018, as the data collection needs to start in 2019, she said.

“We're very interested in making sure that ICAO is able to meet this deadline,” she said. “There's not a lot of controversy in it, but a lot of work.”

U.S. airlines have reported fuel use to the government since the 1950s and other countries have similar requirements, she said. Fuel use is directly related to emissions, so those countries have a good idea of emissions and fuel efficiency. But other countries don't now require such reporting, and it will be important to gain agreement on a common set of rules, Young said.

Airlines already keep very close tabs on their fuel use, but Petsonk warned that the issue of alternative fuels will be more complicated.

To contact the reporter on this story: Peter Menyasz in Ottawa at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at

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