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SPECIAL COMMITTEE: International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is a specialized agency that supports the global framework for commercial passenger and freight aviation. ICAO works with States Parties to the 1944 Chicago Convention, known as Contracting States, to help shape global standards for safety, security and sustainable economic development in the civil aviation space. It also facilitates communication and transfer of technical knowledge between Contracting States and industry groups, non-governmental organizations and other members of the United Nations System.

Protection of the health of passengers and crews and prevention of the spread of communicable disease through international travel Protection of the health of passengers and crews and prevention of the spread of communicable disease through international travel

Air travel connects people together across all countries and continents, bringing substantial benefits in terms of economic growth and cultural exchange. However, international air travel also provides a means by which infectious disease can spread. The rapid speed of air travel means that a person could reach almost anywhere in the world between the time they become infectious with most communicable diseases and when they present symptoms. In addition to transmission of disease at the origin or destination of the traveler, airliners and airports concentrate people from diverse regions in high-density indoor spaces, creating a favorable environment for transmission of a number of diseases, especially those caused by airborne pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19. In addition to human-to-human transmission, insects carrying pathogens can stow away in aircraft and infect people on board or at the destination. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the necessity of establishing best practices to limit and mitigate the spread of communicable disease through international air travel.

Prevention of the spread of communicable diseases through international air travel has been a point of concern since the establishment of international air travel itself. The 1929 Congress on Sanitary Aviation was among the first international attempts to discuss the health implications of air travel and led to the development of the 1933 International Sanitary Convention for Aerial Navigation. Article 14 of ICAO’s founding document, the 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation, or Chicago Convention, specifies that Contracting States have the responsibility to prevent the spread of disease via air travel, and that such States should cooperate on mitigation measures. The World Health Organization (WHO), founded in 1948, collaborated with ICAO on the development of subsequent international regulations pertaining to the spread of infectious diseases via aviation, including the 1951 International Sanitary Regulations and the succeeding 1969 International Health Regulations (IHR). ICAO, in turn, updated its Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs), regulatory guidance annexed to the Chicago Convention, in accordance with WHO guidance. However, the 1969 IHR, along with subsequent revisions in 1973 and 1981, only covered a small subset of specific “notifiable diseases,” including cholera, yellow fever, plague and smallpox, failing to account for novel communicable diseases such as HIV and Ebola.

In 2002, a major outbreak of the novel severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS) originated in China. Air travel was determined to be a significant transmission vector early in the SARS outbreak, which ultimately spread to 29 States across six continents. ICAO worked with the WHO, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and others to develop specific contingency measures for airports in 2003, inspecting airports throughout Asia to ensure compliance. At its 35th Session in 2004, ICAO drew new attention to the larger issue of communicable diseases, focusing on proactive development of harmonized contingency plans for aviation safety while drawing attention to the urgent need for new focus. The WHO also overhauled the IHR in 2005 to expand their scope to any communicable disease that poses a significant global risk to public health. In collaboration with the WHO and other agencies, ICAO developed a series of guidelines based on the IHR revisions. These guidelines specify that national public health authorities should be the primary points of contact for managing the spread of communicable diseases via air travel, but suggest a number of measures—such as screening of travelers in airports—that aviation authorities can take in order to mitigate risk. Of note, these guidelines extensively and explicitly prohibit denying aircraft permission to land, embark and disembark without consultation with the WHO and the aircraft’s state of origin. However, the guidelines do allow States to quarantine travelers suspected of being infected and permit the diversion of aircraft to airports where mitigation measures are possible.

Subsequent ICAO resolutions have focused on developing and promoting the Cooperative Arrangement for the Prevention of Spread of Communicable Disease through Air Travel (CAPSCA) framework, first introduced in 2006. CAPSCA is a voluntary cross-sectorial program led by ICAO that provides support for regional initiatives to share information and best practices as well as global harmonization of aviation regulations in concordance with the WHO’s IHR and ICAO’s SARPs. It continues to be a substantial focus for ICAO. ICAO has also focused on the control of insect vectors of disease transmission, largely in response to mosquito-borne Zika virus outbreaks in several tropical regions, with new resolutions and working papers at its 39th Session in 2016 and its 40th Session in 2019. Additionally, several non-state actors, including the Interstate Aviation Committee and the IATA, have presented work on pandemic preparation and response.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made ICAO’s work on this topic extremely salient. Much as with SARS in 2002, air travel was a significant vector of early transmission of the virus, with risks associated with close contact in both airplanes and airports. ICAO published a handbook with specific guidance for civil aviation authorities to help manage transmissions risks, including data collection and management and how to respond to increases in community risk level. In 2021, ICAO held a virtual High-level Conference on COVID-19 to address the pandemic in between its 40th and 41st sessions and with the goal of implementing the strategies outlined in CAPSCA and other ICAO regulations to keep the aviation sector afloat.

The increased attention COVID-19 has brought to this topic may aid ICAO in developing concrete solutions on this matter, but the Commission will still have to address concerns that vary between countries and interest groups. Some difficulty with previous efforts has stemmed from implementing international agreements at the level of national aviation authorities, airlines and local entities involved in regulating aviation. These authorities traditionally focus on maintaining the safety of the aircraft and its passengers against physical threats such as collisions and technical malfunctions, and public health has often been treated as a secondary issue. The presence of public health authorities in airports varies widely across countries, as do the nature of the communicable disease threats they need to respond to. The COVID-19 pandemic also exposed issues of inequality between Contracting States, such as vaccination and testing access, that led to varying risk levels and regulatory challenges in protecting passengers while allowing for continued international air travel.

Questions to consider from your country’s perspective:

  • What measures should be taken to contain infectious diseases from spreading into a country via air travel while respecting freedom of movement and state sovereignty?
  • What specifically should ICAO do about the ongoing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • How much of the responsibility for protecting air crews, travelers and populations in destination countries should lie with airlines and aviation authorities? 

Bibliography Bibliography

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Aviation’s contribution towards the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Aviation’s contribution towards the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development features 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the United Nations and other stakeholders to work towards by 2030. As a key component in the global transportation system, civil aviation has an important role in assisting and allowing the fulfillment of these goals. Aviation plays a key role in the movement of skilled personnel and airports create a variety of jobs for workers with many skill sets, which can help in the alleviation of poverty. On the other hand, civil aviation emits a substantial amount of carbon dioxide—approximately 3.5 percent of global emissions— and other chemicals which play concerning roles in climate change. As climate change becomes increasingly more severe and potential tipping points loom in the near future, making aviation more sustainable becomes a vital goal.

In 2015, the General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with a corresponding set of 17 goals to be achieved by the year 2030. Each goal came with a set of specific subgoals and indicators to monitor international progress. ICAO plays a notable role in the implementation of SDG 9, focused on building resilient infrastructure to support global trade and innovation, monitoring total amounts of passenger and freight air transport. ICAO has worked to draw increased awareness to the roles of civil aviation in attaining the SDGs. ICAO noted that discussion of civil aviation in the Voluntary National Reviews of SDG progress compiled by United Nations Member States increased from 26 percent in 2016 to 77 percent in 2018.

ICAO has also increased its focus on reducing the threat of climate change posed by carbon dioxide emissions from aviation. Resolution A37-19 proposed a market-based mechanism for ensuring the emissions from international aviation are offset by emissions-reducing measures elsewhere. This was followed up by Resolution A38-18 and Resolution A39-3, which emphasized that ICAO is the proper body for establishing climate change policies for international aviation and established general principles for a market-based mechanism. ICAO has advanced two separate tracks of resolutions. One, culminating in Resolution A39-2, focuses on climate change more broadly, including promoting the development of more fuel-efficient aircraft and the development of sustainable alternative fuels. Another, culminating in Resolution A39-1, focuses on other environmental impacts such as noise and particulate pollution, which are relevant to Sustainable Development Goals 11 and 15.

ICAO is currently involved in numerous initiatives to help meet the SDGs. One particular area of focus for ICAO is supporting Least Developed Countries (LDCs), particularly landlocked States and small island States that are reliant on civil aviation for access to global markets. ICAO’s No Country Left Behind initiative, created in 2014, is focused on ensuring that all States have the resources to comply with ICAO’s globally-harmonized Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs). This technical support has the potential to help increase participation in civil aviation while ensuring greater access to global trade. ICAO also participates in the World Bank’s Sustainable Mobility for All (SuM4All) Initiative, which advocates for and shares technical knowledge to increase accessibility and sustainability across all mobility systems.

Current ICAO plans for mitigating climate change consist of aircraft and fuel improvements, operational improvements, and an emissions offset scheme known as the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), the latter of which accounts for the majority of the emissions mitigation from aviation. This scheme is the focus of Resolution A40-19, while other climate change measures are covered in Resolution A40-18. Several Contracting States have expressed formal reservations about the emissions reductions goals in recent resolutions, referring to them variously as “not based on scientific or practical studies” and “guidance materials divorced from reality.” A key concern raised by several large developing Contracting States is the lack of any allowance for developing States to continue to increase their emissions from aviation in order to expand their aviation sectors to a comparable degree as developed Contracting States. The adoption of a new carbon offset standard potentially separate from the Paris Accords was also a point of concern for several Contracting States.

Several questions regarding aviation sustainability have also been the subjects of particularly lively discussion. First, the CORSIA scheme specifies the emissions baseline as the average of 2019 and 2020 emissions. Due to the rapid decline in passenger flights due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this baseline was lower than expected, and airline groups are asking for the baseline to be changed to 2019 only. Second, several additional technical measures, such as a ban on airlines carrying excessive fuel, have been discussed and could be acted on by the Assembly. Third, research into electric planes for shuttle flights could ease the efforts required to achieve emissions goals, particularly if supported by more funding and cooperation.

Questions to consider from your country’s perspective:

  • How can ICAO help Least Developed Countries, particularly Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States, meet sustainable development goals?
  • How should the aviation industry act to reduce its contribution to climate change?
  • How can emissions reductions from aviation be equitably allocated to account for the needs and concerns of developing States?
  • How should effort be balanced between market-based measures such as CORSIA and technical measures such as alternative fuels?

Bibliography Bibliography

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