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Trump’s withdrawal from Paris is bad news for the ICAO emissions deal


I expect to hear a lot of talk over the coming days, particularly at the IATA AGM in Cancun that starts June 4, about how the Paris climate agreement and ICAO’s Carbon Offset and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) are separate international accords and the withdrawal of the US from Paris doesn’t necessarily mean the US is turning its back on the historic ICAO emissions agreement it championed during the Obama administration.

But the hard truth is that CORSIA, in ICAO’s own words, “complements” Paris. The two agreements are inexorably linked.

It’s impossible to imagine CORSIA without Paris. CORSIA filled in a gap left by Paris, which did not address international aviation emissions, in part because Paris is about each country reducing its domestic C02 emissions. CORSIA deals with emissions being emitted by aircraft flying between countries, sometimes long distances over international waters. In fact, ICAO makes a point of noting that it is incorrect to say Paris does not include aviation. The UN body governing aviation emphasizes that countries can use domestic flight CO2 reductions to help meet their emissions reduction commitments under the Paris agreement.

So now that US President Donald Trump has said the US is leaving Paris, delivering a considerable blow to that agreement, what does it mean for CORSIA? My initial reaction is that CORSIA is in great jeopardy. First, whatever their shortcomings, Paris and CORSIA’s major achievement was developing an international consensus that climate change needed to be addressed under a global strategy for reducing CO2 emissions. Both agreements may lack teeth in terms of compelling compliance (in CORSIA’s case, the 2021-2026 period is voluntary), but it was decided that getting everyone on board was more important at this point. Trump has shattered that consensus.

Even if the US does not say outright that it will leave CORSIA, it can do a lot to undermine it. If, for example, the US announces it will no longer participate in the 2021-2026 voluntary period, it would render CORSIA a complete joke. ICAO notes that member states are responsible for taking “necessary action to ensure that the necessary national policies and regulatory framework be established for the compliance and enforcement of [CORSIA] by 2020.” It’s hard to see that happening in the US now.

Without full-throttle support and backing from the US, which was the most relentless negotiator on behalf of CORSIA when the agreement was finalized and adopted in Montreal last October, CORSIA really loses steam. “I don’t want anything to get in our way,” Trump declared when announcing the Paris withdrawal. Logic follows that his administration would see CORSIA as getting in the way too.

Timing and politics may be the one thing on the side of CORSIA, which doesn’t kick in until 2021. Trump will be up for reelection in November 2020 (technically, the US withdrawal from Paris won’t be complete until 2020) and his stance on climate change and carbon emissions is likely to be a key point of contention in the campaign. I imagine his Democratic opponent will make returning to the Paris accord a central campaign plank—seizing on the substantial blowback Trump’s decision will bring internationally and from many Americans, particularly younger Americans greatly concerned about the environment.

So a Trump defeat in 2020 would mean the president’s move can be mostly reversed—and CORSIA could probably go forward with the US in the fold. But make no mistake: CORSIA was seriously damaged today even though it was not directly mentioned by Trump.

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