On the eve of the International Civil Aviation Organisation conference in Montreal, the EU is redoubling its efforts to bring in as many countries as possible to limit aviation emissions, starting in 2021.
The European Commission sprung into action after news emerged that member states had accepted a six-year phase-in period to please the most reluctant nations in the ICAO.
The 191 members of the UN body responsible for air transport are expected to adopt a global market-based mechanism to curb aviation emissions at a two-week General Assembly opening on 27 September.
The mechanism will be based on the offsetting principle. It will allow more polluting countries and their air carriers to purchase emission reduction units generated in other sectors, or in developing states.
This mechanism will be part of a package aimed at reaching carbon neutral growth for the booming aviation sector, starting in 2020. The airline business currently flies around 3.3 billion passengers each year, a number that is expected to double by 2035.
In order to reach carbon neutral growth, countries and airlines will also rely on more fuel efficient engines, improved air control systems, better routes and sustainable biofuels.
EU officials said they were satisfied with the ongoing discussions on offsetting mechanisms, which they see as the most viable solution to limit emissions in the short term.
An EU source said the proposal was gaining “considerable level of support” because it was a mandatory, global agreement that did not create distortions among aviation players.
However, member states sitting in ICAO had to make “concessions” in other to pave the way for an agreement: a six year phase-in period for countries with less developed aviation sectors.
EU country’s acceptance of a phase-in period has become a source of tension with MEPs and green NGOs, which are pushing for a more ambitious plan. They argue that the global commitment to stop growth in aviation emissions by 2020 could be severely affected if ICAO member states decide not to join the scheme in 2021.
Against this backdrop, the EU has prioritised an outreach campaign to include as many nations as possible under the mechanism from day one.
“Things are moving in the right direction,” officials said. To date, around 50 countries including the EU and neighboring countries, the US, Indonesia, Canada, and Mexico have declared that they will join the offset mechanism from the beginning. China also committed to doing so.
This is also the case for countries initially exempted from the mechanism, given the small size of their aviation sector, such as the Baltic countries or the Marshall Islands.
But MEPs sounded the alarm bells when they were told about the six-year delay for a significant number of countries.
Dutch MEP Bas Eickhout (Greens/EFA group) said he was “shocked” by the Commission’s apparent readiness to make concessions.
“We always said 2021 should be the starting date. What we’re discussing now is a voluntary scheme until 2027 and then still options for exemptions. That is a huge deviation from where we came from!” he exclaimed.
In a declaration signed on 9 September, member states also warned that “in particular, all major aviation states” must join the scheme from the beginning.
Countries with large carriers remain silent about their intentions, including Gulf states.
In light of the voluntary approach until 2027, and the focus on selling credits, NGO Transport and Environment commented that the ongoing talks are leading to a “serious disappointment”.
“We fear that the risks could outweigh the rewards: consumers and governments could be misled into thinking they are ‘flying green’ when in reality airlines will have to purchase only a few offsets, possibly of dubious quality,” the organisation warned.
Two systems, one goal
The outcome of the negotiations will determine how the European Union finally implements, at an international level, its aviation emission trading system.
The EU decided to “stop the clock” on its own ETS in 2012, as third countries protested against the additional cost the bloc would impose on all the flights landing or departing from EU territory.
Member states agreed back then to decide what to do with the ETS system for third countries, once the ICAO assembly discusses a global mechanism to curb emissions.
EU sources told Euractiv.com that legislators admit in private that the ETS for third countries is gone “and it is not coming back” regardless of the outcome of the ICAO assembly.
The voluntary basis of the offset mechanism and the impossibility of recovering the ETS scheme for third country flights could work against European air carriers, as they would face two systems to limit their emissions, while foreign rivals could opt for joining the ICAO system only by 2027.
Although the offset and the ETS systems are different schemes, EU officials said that it would not be problematic to implement both of them as complementary plans in Europe, but only if it does not represent a duplication of efforts.
The global market-based measure will be part of a broader agenda which will also include how to address the growing risk of cyberattacks, the use of drones, and other security-related issues such as flying over conflict zones.
The airline sector, like the maritime sector, has its own UN agency, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which is responsible for organising the reduction of its CO2 emissions. ICAO was tasked by the Kyoto Protocol with addressing emissions from the sector.
It has been difficult to reach global agreement. In 2012, with no deal having been made, the EU included aviation emissions in its Emissions Trading Scheme. The decision sparked a backlash from the industry and foreign countries, like China and India who refused to comply with the scheme and threatened the EU with commercial retaliation measures.
The EU’s temporary halt to the ETS was intended to allow time for the ICAO to devise a global alternative. But in the meantime, international airlines which bitterly attacked the cap and trade scheme at every turn will be exempted from it, while intra-European airlines, which had supported it, will not.
As a whole, the aviation industry continues to fiercely resist market-based measures as anything more than a stopgap, advocating instead a formula of technological and operational improvements - plus the wider use of biofuels - to reduce emissions.
Airlines make up 2% of worldwide CO2 emissions. But the doubling of passengers every 15 years has made it a growing source of greenhouse gases. Due to the strong link between the sector and fossil fuels, reducing its CO2 emission is a challenge. The problem of electricity storage rules out its use in the air, which thus leaves airline manufacturers, which have promised to stabilise their CO2 emissions by 2020, with few options.
- 27 September-07 October: ICAO general assembly in Montreal, Canada.
- 31 December 2016: End of exemption for international flights under the EU's aviation ETS.