UN begins ‘crunch’ debate over airline emissions as EU deadline looms

With no further efforts, aviation emissions are expected to increase by 300% by 2050.

The council of the UN’s airline body, ICAO, will today (9 November) grapple with the dispute over how to make airlines pay for their carbon emissions, just months before EU law is due to oblige airlines to comply with its Emissions Trading System (ETS).

A statement is expected by International Civil Aviation Organization [ICAO] President Roberto Kobeh González at the group’s council meeting in Montréal. It could have profound consequences.

“This is the crunch meeting,” said Bill Hemmings, the aviation specialist for Transport & Environment, a green campaigning group. “ICAO will either commit to a proposal next year, or go back to declarations on whether a market-based mechanism (MBM) is feasible or not.”

EURACTIV understands that the ICAO Council will be presented with a working group paper outlining progress on three potential measures:

  • Mandatory offsetting of aviation emissions;
  • Mandatory offsetting of aviation emissions plus a revenue generating mechanism;
  • A global cap and trade scheme, similar to the ETS.

None of these though, is likely to come to fruition before the EU’s 30 April 2013 deadline for ETS compliance, and officials say that a timetable for action is needed to prevent the dispute from spiralling then.

“If ICAO is going to be able to offer the EU a way forward that allows them to think about how the ETS dovetails with global approaches, then that clearly needs a signal tomorrow [9 November],” one ICAO insider told EURACTIV.

Such a move would be “a clear and concise timetable articulating when these measures will be taken, the extra information they still need to make those choices, and a clear commitment to having that discussion,” the source added.

This would enable the EU to show flexibility on the timing of the ETS’s start date, he said. The EU’s chief climate civil servant, Jos Delbeke, has previously said the EU could amend its ETS legislation, if alternative measures were agreed at ICAO.

Non-compliant airlines

At present, eight Chinese and two Indian carriers have failed to report their 2011 emissions to the EU, while the US Congress has authorised the US to follow suit if President Barack Obama assents.

The EU’s own airline industry has added to this pressure, with senior executives branding the ETS “arrogant” for interfering with other countries sovereignty, and “crazy” for risking a trade war.

But the EU is keenly aware that if it backs down on aviation, challenges from other energy intensive sectors in the EU could follow, potentially stalling the central driver of its climate legislation. 

As such, the stage is set for a showdown. “If the deadlock is not resolved by 30 April, someone is going to have blood on their hands or noses,” Hemmings told EURACTIV.

To avoid push coming to shove, ICAO was tasked with devising an alternative global scheme, and earlier this year, the organisation’s secretary-general promised to bring forward a proposal by the end of 2012, although he subsequently backtracked.

Institutional slippage

ICAO’s deadlines have since slipped, and only two Council meetings are left – in March and June 2013 – before the UN body’s triannual assembly meeting which could propose a new measure next November, seven months after the EU’s deadline.    

Diplomats have reportedly proposed that the EU relax its enforcement on 1 May so that fines on airlines which do not surrender carbon allowances are waived until November.

But environmental groups are concerned that, without a commitment to a proposal next year, this could institutionalise slippage on the issue until ICAO’s next assembly in 2016, and erode the ETS’s foundations in the meantime.  

A protracted ‘Article 84’ ICAO dispute has been flagged by US airlines but is thought unlikely by observers, as it would require the airlines to persuade the Obama administration to deepen the current dispute to possibly intractable levels.

Much now hinges on the attitude of the re-elected US president who, in his victory speech, said that he did not want the next generation of Americans to be “threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet”.

“I would expect greater clarity on the US position,” the ICAO source said.

“The timing [of the airline emissions dispute] for Washington in the run up to the election was very unfortunate,” he added. “We would hope to see some movement from them now.”

In an effort to tackle aviation's small but fast-growing contribution to climate change, the European Commission issued a legislative proposal in December 2006 to bring it into the EU's Emission Trading System (ETS).

This involved imposing a cap on carbon dioxide emissions for all planes arriving or departing from EU airports, while allowing airlines to buy and sell 'pollution credits' on the bloc's carbon market, and so reward lowcarbon-emitting  aviation.

The legislation took effect on 1 January 2012. But non-EU governments and airlines have threatened legal action or trade retaliation unless they are granted exemptions. China's official aviation body, the China Air Transport Association (CATA), says that the ETS would cost its airlines $123 million in the scheme's first year, and more than triple that by 2020. The country also claims special dispensation as a developing country.

EU officials say that China has a higher GDP than Greece or Portugal and question why its businessmen should be exempted from paying the same carbon taxes that others do.

The EU also allows ETS exemptions for governments that take equivalent measures to curb aviation emissions. But Brussels has not said what these might be. China's aviation regulator has already asked all airline carriers to cut their energy and carbon intensity by 22% by 2050.

  • March 2013: ICAO Council meeting
  • 30 April 2013: Deadline for global airlines to surrender their carbon allowances to the EU's ETS or face legal action
  • June 2013: ICAO Conucil meeting
  • November 2013: Triannual ICAO assembly meeting at which an alternative market-based measure could be agreed
  • Association of European Airlines: AEA
  • European Low Fares Airline Association: ELFAA


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