Setting the Tone: A Snapshot of China’s Take on CORSIA and Beyond
Ahead of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s trinary general assembly in late September, China, along with Russia, issued a position paper denouncing the UN body’s aviation emissions plan. Better known as the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), the plan is a medium-term scheme that aims to set caps emissions for international flights from 2020. Global aviation industry accounts for about 2% of all human-induced carbon emissions, but the share is expected to increase in the coming years as air travel becomes accessible to more people. To China, however, CORSIA “lacks moral fairness” since it fails “to ensure a level playing field to all countries.”
Instead, China calls for “promoting the establishment of a fair and equitable CORSIA implementation pathway featuring fairness and equity… through dialogue, consultation and negotiation”, rather than the one-size-fits-all orchestrated by the developed countries. China’s hardened public stance toward CORSIA runs against its earlier position as a critical proponent of the UN plan in 2016. It is, therefore, important to understand China’s position and its potential implications more broadly.
China & CORSIA: Why a Step Back?
In denouncing CORSIA for lacking moral fairness, China effectively presents itself as the spokesperson of the developing countries and emerging economies. But it might be fair to argue that China was, first and foremost, defending it “right for development.” According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), for instance, China will overtake the US to become the world’s largest aviation market by 2024. This also means that, with the proposed CORSIA plan, China’s aviation industry would share more burden on reducing carbon emissions in the near future than is historically warranted, especially given that developed countries shoulder more historical responsibilities when it comes to carbon emissions.
For China and the developing world more broadly, however, increasing burden in carbon emissions reduction is not the only issues with CORSIA. It also threatens to quash the development and future potential of one of the key sectors in these countries’ national economies—the aviation industry. Therefore, China wants to ensure that CORSIA does not derail its growth potential with the proposed plan. As such, China’s criticism is unsurprising, especially given that Beijing has been pushing to ensure that its growing aviation industry is driven by indigenous players, ranging from services related to air travel to aircraft manufacturing.
China’s Expanding Aviation Industry
Although the global duopoly of plane makers Boeing Co. and Airbus SE., have been dominating the Chinese market for years, Beijing has increasingly been calling for its homegrown plane manufacturers with the aim of eventually breaking Boeing-Airbus strongholds. To the call, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) seems to have been answering. COMAC aims to firmly establish itself as an important player not just in the Chinese market but also in Asia and potentially globally.
Despite COMAC’s ambitions, however, the aircraft still relies on American and European imports for critical components, such as the engine, avionics, and landing gear. For instance, more than 50% of the materials for COMAC’s C1919 is produced outside China. Yet the aircraft was set to break Boeing-Airbus’ dominance in global aviation industry. Likewise, in developing its engine–the LEAP-1C–the Chinese aircraft manufacturer had to jointly work with the US and France. Surely, the lack of critical technology will continue to significantly hinder China’s aircraft manufacturing capabilities and substantially hinder Beijing’s push for greater “Made in China” in its aviation market. Worth noting is that, although it is unclear how (if at all) this connects to China’s shared position with Russia on CORSIA, China began a joint venture with Russia to develop the CR929 aircraft since May 2017. But even this joint venture does not entirely break the mentioned China’s dependence on imports of critical components from advanced and more experienced manufacturers.
Beijing’s seeming reversed take on CORSIA might be a huge blow to ICAO’s global efforts to curb carbon emissions. But it would be a mistake to view that as China’s move to loosen its commitments to fighting climate change and protecting the environment. As the position paper demonstrates, “China has been a consistent advocate for the establishment of a full consultation-based CORSIA.” Privately, moreover, China is taking steps to implement CORSIA’s guidelines, while pushing for the eligibility of its environmental projects that airlines could purchase under the scheme.