Sustainability is seemingly becoming the name of the consumption game. Businesses are moving towards more sustainable practices in order to reduce their emissions and, to simply put, save our planet from the brink of disaster. Airlines are no exception. Presumably against industry executives’ best wishes, the spotlight was put on aviation to reduce its output of greenhouse gasses.

Starting from the flight shaming (#flygskam) movement, governments stomping their foot down, to protestors taking extreme action, the spotlight never faded despite the COVID-19 pandemic essentially crippling the sector. Protestors invaded runways and glued themselves to aircraft as recently as June 2020.

On June 29, 2020, the police were called to Angelholm Helsingborg Airport (AGH) as a group of people entered the runway, attempting to prevent a passenger plane from leaving. One protester glued themselves to a plane, a message by local police indicated. 

Lawmakers were also mindful of the environmental consequences of air travel when they gave out state-guaranteed loans or state aid packages, attaching strings to the respective deals. While the emission output plummeted, as did so the demand for air travel, airline executives expect 2019 levels of passenger demand to return sooner rather than later. Optimistic predictions range from 2022 to 2023, while pessimists indicate that that could be as late as 2025.

With the economic downturn touching every link in the aviation's industry chain, Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury provided a harsh outlook for the future, assuming that business as usual would only return in 2025.

Despite the fact that airlines might only be getting back on their feet in 2021, the United Nations’ agency, International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) announced that Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) will enter its pilot phase in 2021.

The goal of the industry, as laid out by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), is to reduce the net emissions to half 2005 levels by 2050.

Offsetting or reducing?

The way that CORSIA works is that airlines would offset their emissions by “financing a reduction in emissions elsewhere,” reads IATA’s fact sheet about the initiative. Greenhouse gas reduction or removal must be something that is additional to an airline’s usual business and must reduce emissions permanently, not something that could be reversed.

In its purest form, CORSIA is not about the reduction of CO2 emissions, but rather making sure that aviation can grow and not be scrutinized for its pollution.

“CORSIA is a vital step in that direction, enabling carbon-neutral growth that will stabilize net emissions from international aviation at 2019 levels (580 million tonnes of carbon),” stated IATA on July 1, 2020. The association, together with ICAO, agreed to keep the baseline at 2019-levels, as the coronavirus pandemic swept aviation off its feet. Due to the reduced traffic, CO2 emissions were also reduced.

“Today’s decision to remove 2020 from the baseline calculation marks a pragmatic way forward that maintains the intent, spirit and impact of the CORSIA agreement,” highlighted IATA’s Director General and CEO Alexandre de Juniac. Sustainability is an airline’s license to grow, added de Juniac.