How Joe Biden could effortlessly boost aviation climate action

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Europe is strengthening its carbon pricing system for aviation. After having fought the policy under the Obama administration, President Joe Biden has a chance to show that the world has changed and that the US is now ready to support real climate action, argues Jakop Dalunde.

Europe is strengthening its carbon pricing system for aviation. After having fought the policy under the Obama administration, President Joe Biden has a chance to show that the world has changed and that the US is now ready to support real climate action, argues Jakop Dalunde.

Jakop Dalunde is a Swedish Member of the European Parliament for the Greens/EFA political group.

President Biden has pledged to “lead the world to lock in enforceable international agreements to reduce emissions in global shipping and aviation.”

However, there are real risks that the US falls into the industry’s trap of pursuing this solely at a corporate-captured UN agency – ICAO – that has failed for over 20 years to reduce emissions, while undermining meaningful action at both the domestic US level, and the EU.

Carbon pricing is one of the tools to incentivize emission reductions. It helps correct market failures as most travellers currently do not pay the real cost of flying. This cost is carried by the rest of the population, in particular the poorest and most vulnerable, in the form of catastrophic climate impacts.

In 2008, when the EU first proposed to put a price on carbon for all its flights, including those crossing the Atlantic, the initiative was met with forceful resistance, threats, and diplomatic action to block such climate policy.

The US was arguably the strongest opponent, carrying the arguments of the aviation industry to the doorstep of European member state governments. Orders for European aircraft manufacturers started being jeopardized, and the EU quickly backed down. Since then, only intra-EU flights must pay a carbon price, while flights leaving for the US are exempt.

At the time, Joe Biden was already vice-president, but the world was very different. No Paris Agreement, no climate neutrality frenzy. Today, Joe Biden has a chance to change course, as the EU is set to review its policy, and could once again propose to price the emissions from flights leaving from or arriving at EU airports.

It is one of those rare times when inaction could actually have a great impact: Joe Biden needs only not oppose this European policy reform.

In 2016, the EU, US and all other UN-member countries agreed on the establishment of a carbon offsetting system – CORSIA – under the UN civil aviation agency, which will require airlines to compensate a very small share of their emissions on international flights.

Unfortunately, the system is deeply flawed, possibly beyond repair. Under that scheme, less than 10% of the aviation sector’s CO2 emissions will be compensated. Other climate impacts from flying, which are not driven by the CO2 emissions, are not addressed at all.

As I write this, carbon prices in the EU are hovering around US$45, while CORSIA credits are available below US$2.

While talks at the UN continue, bilateral cooperation offers a real opportunity to take meaningful action today. The EU is stepping up and the role of international aviation in meeting the EU’s climate target is being re-assessed. But the US holds significant power to make or break a more ambitious system.

Unfortunately, it is already off to a bad start. In the summer of 2020, the message coming out of the US permanent representation in Brussels was not only to oppose the extension of the EU’s existing system, but even to ask the EU to “avoid the further application of the EU ETS to the intra-European flights”.

Read: please dismantle the existing climate policy to make space for an ineffective UN agreement.

If Joe Biden is serious about repositioning the US as a global climate leader, he should direct his country’s diplomatic powers towards promoting ambition around the world and avoid putting a spanner in the works of EU climate action.

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