CORSIA - When aviation goes green

The Paris international air show at Le Bourget opens today to the public. On this occasion, Gareth John, Global Head of Aviation at Natixis, takes stock of the measures put in place by the industry to reduce its environmental footprint.

Combining growth in air transport and regulation of its ecological footprint will require strong commitment from all market participants i.e. airlines, equipment manufacturers, states, airports, and biofuel producers. One of the flagship measures, called CORSIA, intends to offset the industry's CO2 emissions by investing in decarbonating assets.

Combining COP21 and growth of air transport

Greenhouse gas emissions from international air transport currently account for around 2% of global emissions and are increasing continuously as world air traffic grows at around 4% per year.
How does the aviation industry fit into the commitment made at COP21 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% in order to limit the increase in global temperatures to less than 2°C above pre-industrial figures?

CORSIA, a global compensation scheme

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN agency that brings together 193 member states, serves the global regulation of international air transport in all its aspects (safety, security, environment). It has set a target of maintaining global net carbon emissions from international aviation at the same level in 2035 as 2020. The message is clear: business growth must be neutral in terms of CO2 emissions.
ICAO has set up a global mechanism for offsetting CO2 emissions, called CORSIA - "Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation".
Adopted in October 2016 and effective from January 1, 2019, CORSIA made aviation the first economic sector to have global, universal and binding control of its CO2 emissions: airline operators on international flights offset their CO2 emissions above 2020 levels by purchasing compensation units from carbon offset programs (reforestation, renewable energy infrastructure, etc.) certified by ICAO.

A truly impactful measure

This measure is much more impactful than previous initiatives, such as the EU-ETS set up in 2012 by the European Union, which it replaces, since proceeds from the CORSIA program will be invested in real assets and not "rights to pollute" via the purchase of carbon credits.
The mechanism consists of two phases of implementation: the first phase between 2021 and 2026 is voluntary, followed by the second phase from 2027 when the program will apply universally, with the exception of a number of exempt states, namely the least developed countries or those with the least mature air transport industries. From January 1, 2019, participating airlines began assessing their environmental impact.
Sixty-five states, including European countries, have volunteered to take part in the first phase, accounting for nearly 87% of international air travel. From the second phase, the states included in the program are expected to represent more than 93% of international air travel.

Three other areas for improvement

CORSIA is a real step forward in reducing the aviation industry's environmental footprint and it goes beyond airlines merely measuring their impact. Other initiatives that CORSIA plans to implement are:

  • improving aircraft's environmental performance: the emphasis is on the continuous renewal of the global fleet with newer, cleaner, more aerodynamic and lighter new-generation aircraft (seats, carbon fiber, tablets replacing the heavy documentation of aircraft pilots etc.). The latest heavy-lift models reduce CO2 emissions by 20% to 25%, according to the International Air Transport Association. Other innovations - such as the replacement of hydraulic and pneumatic systems with electrical systems for ground handling - are expected to further reduce the ecological footprint of the aircraft.
  • the introduction of operational procedures leading to reduced fuel use: better booking of aircraft, eco-friendly piloting practices, more direct flight paths, airport decongestion and reduced ground travel.
  • the development of biofuels: the industry wants to replace 2% of the global volume of kerosene with biofuel by 2025. The development takes time, because it is necessary to control the CO2 emissions related to its production and not to overburden resources for human or animal food. Thus, efforts will focus on second-generation biofuels (from waste, or biomass) and third generation (algofuels, algae-based). Airport support is also crucial here to ensure that they are properly supplied.

 

Airlines have taken stock of environmental issues and demonstrated their commitment. However, making the aviation sector greener does not only involve them: it is also the responsibility of states, infrastructure, fuel producers, equipment manufacturers, and many others.