Making ICAO’s long-term climate goals a reality

ECAC Executive Secretary, Patricia Reverdy, spoke with ICAO President Salvatore Sciacchitano on ICAO’s ambitions for climate change. This interview was originally published in ECAC News and is being shared below with their permission.


Founded in 1955 as an intergovernmental organization, the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) seeks to harmonise civil aviation policies and practices among its Member States and, at the same time, promote understanding on policy matters between its Member States and other parts of the world. ECAC’s mission is the promotion of the continued development of a safe, efficient and sustainable European air transport system.

ECAC’s long-established expertise in aviation matters, pan-European membership and close liaison with ICAO enable it to serve as a unique European forum for discussion of every major civil aviation topic. It actively cooperates with its sister regional organizations ACAO, AFCAC and LACAC through Memoranda of Understanding, and with the European Commission, EUROCONTROL and the JAA Training Organisation. It has particularly valuable links with industry and organizations representing all parts of the air transport industry.

Patricia Reverdy: Robust climate action for the aviation sector is crucial to achieving the Paris Agreement’s objectives. What is ICAO’s objective?

Salvatore Sciacchitano: Simply put, aviation regulators have agreed to a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 for international aviation. This will complement governments’ Paris Agreement objectives, which encompass domestic aviation.

We are on a significant journey that is only just beginning. The technical and commercial feasibility of this goal has been confirmed by the ICAO Council’s Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection CAEP), and its studies are available on our website.

The achievement of this goal will rely on multiple CO2 emissions reduction measures, with governments for their part agreeing through ICAO to focus on and encourage advances in aircraft and related technologies, more efficient flight operations and routes to reduce fuel burn, and of particularly crucial importance, the increased production and deployment of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF).

Salvatore Sciacchitano is the sixth and current president of the ICAO Council. He was elected in November 2019 for a three-year term beginning 1 January 2020. Mr Sciacchitano was re-elected in October 2022 for a second three-year mandate beginning 1 January 2023.

However, how quickly the aviation community can innovate to achieve these objectives, and how reliably we can assure access to the much-needed financing to support them, will be the most critical factors impacting our success. These are the key considerations in ICAO’s climate action strategy and advocacy.

ICAO has had a long-standing mandate to assist States with coordinating their environmental protection responsibilities. Where does this net-zero objective fit in?

As things proceed towards the realization of the net-zero objective, governments will be complementing reductions with emissions offsetting through the landmark Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) agreement, which countries have also adopted at ICAO, and which will play a key role in assuring the near-term environmental sustainability of the recovery of global air transport from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, it is important to understand that offsetting is not one of the solutions supporting the net-zero objective. When countries adopted their net-zero target at last year’s ICAO Assembly, they formally recognized that the largest potential impact on aviation CO2 emissions reduction will come in the near term from sustainable and lower carbon aviation fuels (LCAF), and cleaner energy sources. This was based on the conclusions of an earlier feasibility study produced by CAEP, which highlighted among its many other findings that direct substitution SAF can significantly impact residual CO2 emissions, driving important global reductions between now and 2050.

Current SAF production is, however, minuscule compared to the current consumption of traditional aviation fuels. What is ICAO’s perception of that reality?

ICAO is very conscious and frank about the fact that the tremendous potential of SAF to contribute to achieving countries’ long-term aspirational goal is counterbalanced by the enormous challenge we face to scale up its development and distribution. This is why we’re convening the third ICAO Conference on Aviation and Alternative Fuels (CAAF/3), which will be held later this year in Dubai from 21 to 24 November, and which will be a crucial opportunity to lay the groundwork for the years ahead.

It’s about fostering international partnerships and cooperation, actively engaging with financial institutions such as development banks, private equity entities, and fuel producers through ICAO Council briefings, regional meetings, and bilateral exchanges. We expect the event to result in the adoption of a SAF policy framework that would provide the investors with the perspectives and confidence needed to ramp up financing.

This will build on ICAO Member States’ clear understanding of the need for greater partnership and engagement between the air transport and finance communities. This was illustrated by a recent in-depth briefing on the actions and outcomes now needed to achieve net zero that comprised six international development banks – including the World Bank – and the Air Transport Action Group. There is some tremendous potential inherent in this closer collaboration between ICAO and the international finance community, and both ICAO and the governments who cooperate through it have a critical role to play in developing harmonized international policy frameworks and a level global playing field to accelerate much-needed investment.

At ICAO we have been broadening our tent and fostering new international partnerships and cooperation with the energy and financial sectors to accelerate much-needed investment in this area. We are also helping countries to build local capacities and foster international contacts to optimise their SAF potential through our Assistance, Capacity Building and Training for Sustainable Aviation Fuels (ACT-SAF) programme. To date, more than 120 States and international organizations are now very actively participating in this initiative.What outcomes from these initiatives does ICAO expect in terms of milestones on the road to 2050?

We expect these combined initiatives and events to raise important awareness among national decision-makers and to accelerate the development of the regulatory and policy frameworks needed to assure investor confidence and scale up global SAF development and deployment. I’d like to take this opportunity to also highlight that it’s not just about SAF.

While SAF production and deployment will be an important near-term priority for the greening of international aviation, in the mid to longer term we should begin to see some very substantial emissions reduction contributions arising from the cutting-edge innovations now taking place in aeronautics, propulsion and energy storage, materials sciences, and many other areas of science and technology.

ICAO encourages aviation and clean energy innovators to come together to discuss and share their progress through dedicated events we’ve established for that purpose. These are, in fact, the focus of our stocktaking event that took place in July this year. Further important reduction progress will be derived from infrastructure and aeronautical modernisation to optimise the latest advances in satellite navigation and to promote the increased adoption of efficiency solutions such as air traffic flow management and performance-based navigation (PBN).

These and many more forward-looking developments in the area of air navigation capacity and efficiency will be explored at the ICAO Air Navigation World event taking place at the end of August this year.

You mentioned earlier that CORSIA is a particularly important element in aviation’s climate action strategy in the near term. With traffic levels expected to exceed pre-pandemic levels soon, where are we at in terms of implementation?

CORSIA is being implemented in three phases: a three-year pilot phase that will conclude this year, a three-year first phase beginning next year, and the second phase that will cover the emissions through to 2035. For the first two phases, participation is voluntary. From 2027 onwards, participation will be determined based on 2018 Revenue Tonne Km (RTK) data.

As of 1 January 2023, 115 States had announced their intention to participate in CORSIA. Nine more States (Antigua and Barbuda, Kuwait, Samoa, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, Mauritius, Malawi, and Haiti) announced their intention to participate in CORSIA from 1 January 2024, bringing the total number of participating States to 124.

To ensure that operators and participating States are able to accurately measure and report their CO2 emissions, ICAO has developed extensive rules and procedures which States have since adopted to govern a robust CO2 emissions monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) system. Some 97% of CO2 from global international aviation is now being annually reported under this framework through the CORSIA Central Registry, and for the first-ever such measure designed to regulate emissions on a global basis this represents a significant achievement.

Most recently, and for the first time, SAF were certified under CORSIA. Making use of the two ICAO-approved sustainability certification schemes designed for this purpose, the development marks a significant milestone for both SAF production and aviation climate action by States.

The SAF were produced from wastes and are char[1]acterised by 75% to 84% lower CO2 emissions compared to conventional aviation fuels. The successful certification of these sustainable aviation fuels ensures that they present real environmental benefits on a life-cycle basis, and it also confirms the performance of the certification process itself.

In short, the pandemic did not derail governments’ commitment to addressing the climate action of their international flights. On the contrary, their prepandemic commitments, including CORSIA, have provided a robust platform for assuring the sustainability of the recovery. There is no doubt that aviation stakeholders are keen to ramp up the momentum on climate action, and quickly.

Does ICAO have a key call to action?

Collaboration, and a unified global approach, are fundamental to the overall objectives we share to mitigate, decrease, and eventually eliminate air transport emissions. ICAO will continue to fulfill our important role in supporting and optimising the capacities and consensus of States towards increasingly ambitious environmental targets. While air transport has been widely recognised in the past as a “hard-to-decarbonise” sector, it has been very encouraging to see that we’re focusing much less today on calculating our global emissions percentage, and much more on what we are doing, and must do, about it.

I mentioned earlier that innovation and financing priorities are fundamental to all of our current objectives and ambitions toward the decarbonisation of international aviation. As we have just explored briefly, there is no shortage of innovation today in any area of aviation sustainability, and as a standards-developing agency, ICAO recognises that it has a significant role to play in making its own assessment and review processes much more efficient so that they don’t impede the progress that is so urgently needed.

We will also be much more active in bringing together governments and industry in this area, and in leveraging the opportunities this presents for increased public and private sector partnerships, efficiencies, and results.

Simply put, the full engagement of the entire aviation ecosystem must now be brought to bear on this very urgent and important priority. We must work together towards agreed and common goals, to achieve the success of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 that the world is demanding from us.

About the interviewer

Patricia Reverdy is the Executive Secretary of ECAC. Through her role where she promotes and leads the activities of the organization, she provides the ECAC President, the members of the Coordinating Committee and all ECAC Directors General with policy advice and strategic options on all issues within the ECAC Work Programme and on possible areas for new activity. She manages the implementation of the organisation’s work programme according to the allocated budget.