As the EU institutions found a fragile compromise on the emissions trading scheme for aviation, the EU commissioner in charge of transport said the EU executive was still “committed to the ETS” and put the blame on member states for its failure.

After the European Union’s institutions reached a preliminary agreement on the highly-sensitive aviation emissions trading scheme (ETS) on Wednesday (5 March), the EU commissioner in charge of transport, Siim Kallas, admitted that the EU had bowed to international pressure.

Speaking at an event organised by the European Policy Centre and US plane-maker Boeing on aviation in Europe, Kallas called the talks “a nightmare”.

“Two years ago in Singapore I was attacked by the world’s aviation when I defended it [the ETS]. The European ETS is a great concept but the problem is [the risk of] a trade war,” the commissioner told the audience.

Kallas talked about “counter-measures” introduced by third countries, such as the United State’s bill prohibiting US airlines from participating in the European programme, and mentioned threats from third countries that could have led to a “trade war.” He did not mention that the European Court of Justice ruled in 2011 that the EU scheme was valid and did not infringe international law.

The Commission, he said, “is still committed to the ETS ideology” but put the blame on EU member states for the failure to enforce it. “We could do it only if we have a strong front of member states,” he said.

The transport commissioner’s remarks were labelled “rather condescending to his colleagues in the College” by the green NGO Transport and Environment (T&E). “The ETS is the first step to reduce aviation's runaway emissions," T&E director Jos Dings told EurActiv in emailed comments. "As Connie Hedegaard [the EU climate commissioner] would not get away with dubbing the Trans-European Transport Networks an ideology, Kallas shouldn't get away with calling the ETS an ideology."

Trilogue agreement

The EU has been struggling with its carbon emissions plan for years. Under international pressure, the Union “stopped the clock” on the ETS in 2012 to give the UN’s civil aviation body (ICAO) the time to come up with an efficient global market-based mechanism that would be accepted as an international compromise.

Under “stop-the-clock”, only intra-European flights are covered by the scheme, but not long-haul ones.

Following the ICAO fiasco, the EU executive put forward a new legislative proposal on which the EU's three main law-making institutions (the Commission, Council and Parliament) reached a deal on 5 March in the framework of so-called “trilogue” talks.

>> Read also: MEPs defy EU states on aviation emissions law

The compromise text strengthens both the Commission’s initial proposal and the EU member states’ position by limiting “stop the clock” until the next ICAO assembly in 2016 only, thereby forcing it to come up with an environmentally acceptable deal at global level, since EU legislation will return to its full scope after the deadline, covering all flights departing from or landing on the EU’s territory.

One of the EU Parliament’s rapporteurs on the issue, German MEP Pieter Liese, told the press that the Parliament’s negotiators also “improved the wording on what kind of global deal we expect”, referring to comments in ICAO that the global deal would go for a “carbon-neutral growth” solution. Instead, the EU agreement clearly states emissions reduction is expected from the UN in 2016.

Other improvements obtained by Parliament in the deal include stronger pressure from the executive over member states to enforce the legislation.

Liese explained that “we cannot accept to reduce the scope and then not have even this reduced scope enforced”.

Last but not least, the rapporteur insisted from the beginning of the process on obtaining legal provisions pertaining to the spending of revenues from ETS allowance auctions.

“In the new legislation […] member states will have to report on how [the money] is spent,” he said, adding that the “money should be spent on climate change purposes such as research and development for clean aircrafts and clean transport.”

Tight calendar

MEPs will vote on the compromise first in the environment committee and then in plenary session in April. But it’s far from a done deal, the rapporteur warned, urging his colleagues to approve it.

“Some say it’s too weak, others say it’s too strong,” he told the press.

Matthias Groote, chairman of the Parliament's environment committee, said there was a “50-50” chance for adoption and that it was “not certain that the trilogue deal will get through”. Liese was slightly more optimistic “but not sure”, saying he thought it would be able to convince the members of his political group, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP).

The MEPs stressed that if there was no agreement by April, the previous legislation would automatically go back into force.