‘We can live with this’: How Airbus was allowed to write its own climate rules

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ICAO’s Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP) is made up of 24 states, with the EU counting for eight of these 24. Meetings of CAEP are not public, and it is forbidden to disclose any documents. [sagesolar / Flickr]

E-mail exchanges between the European Commission and Airbus show how the European aircraft manufacturer was offered privileged access to the EU decision-making process, allowing it to write its own environmental rules, writes Andrew Murphy.

Andrew Murphy is aviation manager at Transport and Environment.

Emails released to Transport & Environment after an 18 month-long appeal process have confirmed that when crafting CO2 rules for aircraft, the European Commission – the regulator – gave Airbus – the regulated entity – privileged access to the EU decision-making process and allowed Airbus to determine the EU position. The result is a standard which does nothing for the climate or public health.

Before we get to the emails, a little background. Unlike for cars or vans, CO2 emissions from aircraft are not regulated. The slow progress in aircraft efficiency and CO2 emissions is one of the key reasons why the sector’s emissions continue to soar.

After years of delay, the UN agency which regulates aviation, ICAO, under pressure to act, finally agreed in 2009 to develop such a standard. ICAO convened a group of independent experts who recommended that regulatory pressure could speed up emission cuts from aircraft. Five years of work ensued, under heavy influence from industry, which worked to make sure the standard would require them to make no changes to their plans.

Europe played a key role in these negotiations. It had been leading the charge on climate policy for some years, it had insisted on ICAO action to tackle aviation CO2 and hosts one of the two big aircraft manufacturers: Airbus.

But instead of genuinely attempting to push Airbus and Boeing to speed up emission cuts and efficiency gains, the EU executive worked closely with Airbus to ensure the new rules would have no impact. The emails released show how Airbus and the Commission’s transport directorate exchanged notes and how Airbus was given the opportunity to determine the EU’s final negotiating position on the stringency of the standard.

However did we get here?

The aircraft CO2 standard was developed over several years, with a number of interim decisions which were also essential to the outcome. But let’s focus on the February 2016 meeting of what’s known as CAEP – ICAO’s Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection. This meeting would determine the different stringency standards for aircraft production – the real meat and bones of the measure.

CAEP is made up of 24 states, with the EU counting for eight of these 24. There are also a large number of industry and some NGO observers. Meetings of CAEP are not public, and it is forbidden to disclose any documents. Those involved must sign a confidentiality agreement not to share what is submitted or said. When the final decisions were made in the February 2016 meeting, all observers were excluded and it was just the 24 states.

In advance of this meeting, the European Commission’s transport directorate (DG Move) coordinated with member states the drafting of the EU’s negotiating position. Given that the EU has one third of the seats in CAEP, this position would be central to the final outcome. And this is where the emails show us, blow by blow, what happened.

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Step 1: what would Airbus like?

With a deadline of December 7th 2015 to submit the European position, Airbus was sent a draft of the paper in advance. Environmental NGOs were not given such access, and there is no evidence that any other stakeholders were consulted in this way. A series of meetings and exchanges between the Commission and Airbus followed, to determine what the latter could accept: “It is important that we have by the end of this week a perfectly clear view of what Airbus can/cannot achieve on CO2 standard.”

Step 2: giving the pen to Airbus

The Friday before the paper was to be submitted on Monday 7th, the Commission again sent Airbus a draft of this paper. Changes are made, and here the emails show Airbus in the position of accepting the track changes and making further “final” suggestions – the regulated literally being allowed to write their own regulations. Further emails on that day, 4 December, show Airbus being sent the proposed stringency standards and cut off dates and responding three minutes later “Yes, we can live with this.”

The paper as submitted, “WP/55”, contains an incredibly weak negotiating position. Much weaker than the US.

Step 3: the public catch on

The EU position was set out in a briefing for the European parliamentary delegation to the February meeting which was inadvertently put on the Parliament’s website. The Guardian published details on 22 January: “Europe lags behind US in new plans to tackle CO2 emissions from planes”. Emails from later that day show industry, led by GE Aviation, outraged about the public getting a hint of what is going on. Complaints are made to ICAO. GE talks about everyone needing to ‘play by the rules’, the rules which we know are favourable to industry.

And in fact ICAO managed to block the Parliamentary delegation from attending the CAEP meeting that February, claiming the talks were technical not political. The Commission sided with ICAO thus ensuring that Europe’s elected representatives were kept away.

Step 4: Airbus and their red lines

In the run-up to the ICAO session, the emails show a flurry of meetings and discussions. The EU liaises with the Obama administration, and almost immediately shares the outcome with Airbus.

On the first day of the CAEP meeting, an email is sent from a senior level in Airbus HQ with the subject line “Airbus redlines”. The email says that the issue has been discussed by Airbus, but with some of the following text redacted. The email ends with Airbus writing “Please confirm that the Commission and Europe will support Airbus and respect those red lines.” The Commission response to this is also redacted, but given the outcome of negotiations, we have no doubt that Europe marched exactly to Airbus’ tune. And with Europe having eight out of 24 CAEP members, that attitude was central in destroying whatever might have been left of the standard.

Step 5: a do-nothing standard

On 9 February 2016, behind closed doors, agreement is reached on the standard. We’ve written extensively on why this standard will do nothing to cut aircraft emissions. The aircraft CO2 standard is not an isolated case but part of a pattern. When it comes to aviation environmental policy, the Commission is underperforming.

Step 6: What needs to happen?

There are two big flaws in Europe’s aviation environmental policy. The first is outsourcing all action to ICAO, which has been Europe’s mantra for some time. The above story was only possible because of how ICAO operates: behind closed doors and with no public or democratic scrutiny – MEPs were not even allowed to attend the key meeting.

We saw this again two weeks ago when the ICAO Council scrapped ten out of 12 sustainability safeguards for biofuels in its planned offsetting measure, the CORSIA. This decision was taken in a closed session with the apparent consent of the EU Commission and seven EU member states. Until ICAO changes how it operates, there is no reason to believe it can deliver on its endless promises to address aviation’s climate impact.

The second flaw is right here in Europe: too many of our institutions and policy makers – including the Commission – are far too deferential to the aviation industry.

Yes Airbus and many of Europe’s airlines are big employers and economic successes. But this is true for many other industries and all of them have been required to make efforts to reduce their emissions. The aviation sector has so far almost entirely escaped effective environmental regulation. The start to solving this is for policies to be decided in a fair and transparent manner.

These emails show we’re a long way from that.

Making airplanes cleaner: Who should decide?

It is essential that the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and Europe retain the power to have the final say on regulating aircraft and the ability, with parliamentary oversight, to adjust future European regulations as needed to changing circumstances, writes Bill Hemmings.