Airlines embrace carbon reductions, but fear the Trump administration might get in their way

Living on Earth
Airplane takeoff

An AirChina Boeing 747 releases plumes of exhaust as it takes off out of San Francisco. Fuel is the number one cost for airlines and motivates them to reduce emissions. 


America’s air carriers have signed on to an international agreement for carbon offsets and reduction, arguing it will prevent unilateral charges over their emissions at foreign airports. But the Trump administration, after pulling out of the Paris Agreement, is reviewing that decision, despite vocal support for it from US airlines.

The Carbon Offsets and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA, was signed on Oct. 6, 2016, at the UN. It currently has the voluntary support of more than 70 nations, representing nearly 90 percent of international airline activity.

“It was key to have an international body with 191 countries come together with a single plan for how to address aviation and environmental issues, exactly because we take off in one country and land in another,” says Nancy Young, vice president of environmental affairs with the trade group Airlines for America. “Having unilateral measures or a series of unilateral measures would be conflicting, duplicative and counterproductive.”

While the plan was agreed to by all 191 international civil aviation organization countries, for the first six years it's an opt-in, voluntary system, Young explains. Seventy countries have signed on so far. After the first six years, it becomes mandatory, except for the least developed countries and those with very low levels of international aviation activity.

“The target we have set is to achieve carbon-neutral growth beyond 2020,” Young says. “That is why from the beginning, we supported having the United States in the first six years and then on into the mandatory period beyond that.”

Governments were the primary negotiators of the deal, but “accredited observer organizations,” including the international airline association and environmental groups, joined the process, Young explains. “We were able to be, essentially, in the room for most of the discussions over the last many years, and I think that really helped cut through different views around the world, when industry was supporting going forward with this deal,” she says.

CORSIA and the Paris climate agreement are separate agreements, covering very different scopes of activity, Young notes. The Paris Agreement covers countries' domestic commitments in an array of sectors, while the civil aviation agreement is specific to international aviation.

“The CORSIA agreement is the first international, global, market-based measure that applies to any specific sector,” Young explains. “So, that is a huge, historic step. We were able to reach that by having the airlines work together with the rest of our supply chain — the airframe manufacturers, the engine manufacturers, the airports — and then together we came to an agreement to meet our own goals.”

Staying in the agreement best serves the airlines and the Trump administration, Young believes. “We think this agreement should speak to the objectives of this administration: to have business-smart, technology-smart, energy-smart solutions for addressing the challenges of industry and international competitiveness.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.