The Council of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has changed the baseline year for calculating emissions reductions by airlines in light of the Covid-19 crisis to avoid an “inappropriate economic burden on the industry”.

The baseline for ICAO’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) scheme, due to come into force next year, was to have been the average of 2019 and 2020.

But the ICAO Council decided this week that would set the baseline too low and plumped for using 2019’s emissions – a record year for airlines – instead.

The decision was condemned by the Environmental Defence Fund (EDF) which accused the ICAO Council of “unilaterally changing the rules for the first three years of the agency’s flagship climate programme [and] suspending airlines’ obligations to offset a portion of their carbon pollution”.

But airline association Iata welcomed the decision, describing it as “a pragmatic way forward”.

Annie Petsonk, International Counsel for EDF, said: “As airlines scramble to recover from the Covid-19 crisis, they can’t afford to ignore the looming global crisis of climate change.

“The sooner the costs of carbon control are included in the costs of doing business, the sooner new technologies will be developed.

“Instead, ICAO’s Council decided to backtrack on its commitment to ‘carbon neutral growth from 2020’ so airlines need only offset emissions above 2019 levels for the first three years of the programme.

“If emissions do not rise above 2019 levels, airlines are wholly excused from offset obligations.”

She warned: “The decision leaves the field wide open for governments to require airlines to integrate climate action into their economic recovery. That could leave the industry with the patchwork of regulations it fears.”

CORSIA is supposed to supplement airlines’ ability to cut CO2 emissions through improvements in aircraft and engine design, sustainable fuels and other measures by using carbon offsets.

Announcing the decision, ICAO said: “The impact of Covid-19 would lead to a reduction in the CORSIA baseline, calculated as the average of 2019 and 2020 emissions from the sector.

“This would create an inappropriate economic burden to operators, due to the need to offset more emissions although they are flying less and generating less emissions.

“The Council determined that the value of 2019 emissions shall be used for 2020 emissions to avoid [an] inappropriate economic burden on the industry for CORSIA implementation during the pilot phase from 2021 to 2023.”

It acknowledged the change “will disrespect the originally-agreed intention and objectives of ICAO’s 193 Member States when they adopted CORSIA in October 2016”.

However, ICAO Council president Salvatore Sciacchitano said it was “the most reasonable solution given our current, very extraordinary circumstances”.

The council noted: “There could be implications to the subsequent phases of CORSIA in light of how the sector’s recovery would take place.”

Iata asked the ICAO Council to change the rules so airlines would only have to offset when emissions rise above 2019 levels, citing the slump in aviation due to Covid-19.

Alexandre de Juniac, Iata director general, said: “Airlines know sustainability is their license to grow. They fully support CORSIA as the single global mechanism for offsetting aviation’s international emissions.”

Barely a week earlier, ICAO announced “significant progress toward the global implementation of CORSIA despite the challenges of COVID-19”.

It noted 85 states representing almost 77% of international aviation “are committed to the voluntary phase” of Corsia.