CORSIA critic: A ‘false solution’ that ‘delays action’

Sustainability | Jul 05, 2021 | By Satair | 7 min read

The aviation industry’s controversial CORSIA scheme began in earnest six months ago. To mark the occasion, the Satair Knowledge Hub spoke to both a prominent supporter and critic of the scheme. In this article, we interview Magdalena Heuwieser of Stay Grounded. 

Magdalena Heuwieser is the spokesperson for Stay Grounded, a network comprising 170 organisations from around the world that are campaigning for a climate-just reduction of aviation. The group argues that air travel “is the most unequal mode of transport” because a small number of wealthy frequent flyers account for half of all commercial aviation emissions. 

Stay Grounded thinks that rather than focusing on issues like carbon offsets, society should rethink the unbridled growth of global air traffic. We spoke to Heuwieser about CORSIA and whether she thinks the aviation industry deserves credit for its climate goals. For the counterpart of her argument, be sure to read our interview with IATA’s director of aviation environment Michael Gill.  

Photo of Magdalena Heuwieser of Stay Grounded

Satair Knowledge Hub: In an interview with Deutsche Welle, you were very critical of CORSIA and said "it is even worse than doing nothing because it distracts from real solutions." Could you expand on that? How does it distract from other solutions, and what do you see as the most realistic alternative ways of cutting aviation emissions?

Magdalena Heuwieser: CORSIA covers only a tiny part of aviation emissions. CORSIA is a way for the industry to cheaply buy themselves out of climate commitments and lobby against all the other measures that have been on the plate for so long, like eliminating the fuel and VAT tax exemptions.

Cutting aviation emissions is only possible by cutting aviation demand in the frequent flyer countries of the Global North. This involves taxes but also bans on short-haul flights and good alternative transport modes. These are important steps, but we also have to be aware that aviation is a core pillar of a globalized hypermobile capitalist system, a system that is built upon the international trade of goods, business flights, a mass tourism industry, work arrangements that exhaust people and create the need for quick adventure or relaxation during short holidays. So while changing aviation, what we also need is to change our work relations and our economy. This will bring lots of positive aspects to people, like decelerated lives, more local relationships and thriving communities – and most importantly a world that is hopefully still livable by avoiding climate breakdown.

CORSIA: Effective carbon offsetting scheme or greenwashing?

SKH: Some of the major criticisms of CORSIA are that it is voluntary until 2027 and that it doesn’t cover domestic flights, which account for a third of aviation emissions. Do you share these concerns, and what else do you not like about CORSIA?

MH: My major concerns are that CORSIA is based on offsetting, which is a false solution, and that it ignores the non-CO2 effects that are responsible for about twice as much climate heating as the CO2 alone. But the voluntary aspect is a problem. The domestic flights are supposedly covered by the UNFCCC Paris Agreement - but also there, non-CO2 aspects are ignored, and most states don't apply measures to tackle their aviation emissions.

SKH: We've just seen the worst year in aviation history, but there are already indications that travel demand is quickly rebounding. Stay Grounded suggests that the pandemic provided an ideal opportunity to transition to a more just and climate-friendly future. Are you afraid that the window for real change may be rapidly closing?

MH: Yes. I'm afraid that the window for real change is rapidly closing now that we are finally seeing an end of the pandemic. With no structural measures in place that would incentivize people to not take all the flights they couldn't take in the last year, I fear that there might be a rebound. This is a major issue, both for climate reasons and because virus mutations can very easily be spread and then we’d have to start all over again.

I do still hope that companies will continue using online conferences instead of jet-setting around the world, but I don't see enough changes in travel policies both on the corporate or state levels yet. I also hope people will remember how peaceful it was to not hear aviation noise, especially for those living under flight routes close to airports.

CORSIA proponent: ‘Fundamental to achieving carbon-neutral growth’

SKH: In your transition paper, Stay Grounded proposes that "flights will be prioritised for those who really need them". How would that work in practice? Who would decide "who really needs" to fly and what criteria would be used?

This is one of the key questions we should discuss: What are legitimate flights and what are unnecessary, frivolous and unfair flights that should be stopped immediately? There is no easy answer, and not one person alone can decide. But we need a societal debate on that.

Also, I like the idea of a frequent flyer levy, which would only apply to those taking a lot of flights. It would still allow migrants to visit their family abroad while targeting wealthy frequent fliers. They have to be held responsible for their climate impact, and the money could be used for fostering alternative transport modes available to everyone, and for creating job alternatives.

SKH: The Stay Grounded paper talks about the need to "create a cultural shift" and perhaps that has already begun to happen with the "flygskam" movement. But how can you convince people to fly less often?

MH: Behaviour changes, cultural changes and structural systemic changes are closely interlinked. Some people have changed their habits because they realize that flights are extremely damaging. But that's not enough to avoid climate breakdown. Many people will continue choosing a flight if it's quicker and cheaper than a train. This is where structural change is necessary – we need to have common rules that incentivize sustainable choices and abolish damaging business. 

But in order to achieve those policy changes, pressure from below is decisive. And this will only be possible if more than a tiny minority decides to not fly anymore. 

SKH: Stay Grounded writes that "possible future technology should not be an excuse to not act now". What do you mean by that?

MH: The aviation industry is a greenwashing best practice case. Currently, there is almost no production capacity for e-fuels. Converting electricity to fuel is an energy-intensive process. Electric fuels could in theory be produced by surplus renewable energy and serve as storage technology in times of high wind or solar energy production. The problem is that we are a long way from even producing enough renewables for transport on the ground, manufacturing, agricultural production or heating. If all planes currently were to fly with e-fuels, this would consume more than the existing renewable electricity in the world, leaving nothing for other sectors.

SKH: Even some airlines are critical of CORSIA. Would you rather see airlines pursuing their own emission reduction strategies than joining together in something like CORSIA? 

MH: It will never work to leave climate measures up to companies. They will not voluntarily threaten their business model while competing against other airlines. 

SKH: Deutsche Welle found that participation in CORSIA will cost airlines less than 1% of their operating costs by 2035. Does that level of investment show that airlines are taking their environmental commitments seriously? 

MH: Offsetting (or the CORSIA rules on it) are no incentive for airlines to reduce their emissions. Offsetting is cheaper than a kerosene tax or the development of alternative fuels and new propulsion technologies, so it delays action.

SKH: International aviation is the only sector that has an absolute cap on global CO2 emissions and today’s flights emit only roughly half as much CO2 as they did 30 years ago. Does the aviation industry deserve credit for its advancements to date and its future green initiatives?

MH: This is not entirely correct. It's true that one flight today emits fewer emissions than one flight 30 years ago. But in total, flight emissions have grown a lot! From 1990 to 2010, global CO2 emissions rose by an estimated 25%. Over the same period, the CO2 emissions of international aviation rose by more than 70%. And this is supposed to continue: Before Covid-19, the industry expected air traffic demand to double in the next 20 years.

So while coal-fired power stations are being shut down, there are no plans at all to restrict aviation growth.

International aviation is not the only sector that has an absolute cap on CO2 emissions – it is actually the only sector that almost solely relies on offsetting emissions instead of reducing them. This means paying others to reduce their emissions, in order to keep flying. 

SKH: If we could ask you to look into a crystal ball, do you think the industry will hit its 50% emissions reduction target by 2050? If that target is reached, what sort of role will CORSIA have played in that?  

MH: My crystal ball tells me two scenarios: In the realistic one, the crystal ball looks like the earth on fire. By 2050, several tipping points will have been reached and we're in a serious humanitarian crisis that we totally lost control of. In this scenario, some very wealthy will still take flights, while the majority of people fleeing from disasters will be left on their own devices.

The other scenario is the hopeful one. CORSIA will have been scrapped a long time ago and replaced by stronger national, regional and international commitments. There still will be a reduced amount of flights, and for this smaller number of planes, it will be possible to use truly renewable propulsion, while there are comfortable sustainable trans-oceanic ferries on which people can enjoy the journey or work from. Reduced working hours, thriving communities and the sense of contributing to a meaningful healthy life will allow people to feel nourished without the need for the current type of holidays.