Aviation emissions law ‘puts Europe’s global power to the test’, MEPs say


The emissions trading system (ETS) for aviation is rapidly turning into a “political question of the EU’s influence on the world stage”, members of the European Parliament and industry representatives said on Thursday (23 January), ahead of a key vote in the Parliament's environment committee on 30 January.

The Parliament's rapporteur on aviation ETS, Peter Liese MEP, has threatened to block the EU's efforts to amend the existing legislation if the European Commission does not mention which countries have undermined the EU scheme.

The Commission had previously confirmed that there was “politically-motivated noncompliance” among some EU member states, but did not mention any of them by name, despite insistent questions from MEPs.

>> Read also: MEP seeks to strengthen draft EU aviation emissions law

“I am frankly shocked how little attention member states pay to this,” Liese told the audience on 23 January in the EU Parliament. “In this situation, I’m not ready to conclude a trilogue when we don’t know at all whether the current legislation is being implemented or not,” he continued, referring to foreign carriers who are operating intra-EU flights without paying their share.

In 2012, the EU began applying its emissions trading scheme to all airlines using EU airports. But strong opposition from the US, China, Russia and other countries, led the EU to freeze the scheme and reduce its scope to airlines operating only inside the EU’s borders, pending a global agreement at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

Airbus under fire

However, it appears that some foreign airlines have circumvented the European rules. At the Parliament meeting, MEPs shared information about Chinese airlines operating intra-EU flights, and even intra-German ones, without complying with the CO2 legislation.

“Air China is flying regularly between Athens and Munich and China Eastern between Frankfurt and Hamburg … without complying,” MEP Satu Hassi explained, calling on the Commission “to make it clear both to the carriers and the member states” that they have to comply with the law.

“When the Chinese refuse to pay for intra-European flights, there should be a strong reaction," Peter Liese said. "Imagine if they operated a power plant in Europe without following the rules!” he exclaimed. 

For MEPs and green campaigners alike, Airbus stakeholder states – the UK, France and Germany – have surrendered to “economic blackmail” from China, which threatened to no longer buy Airbus planes if the EU carried on with its legislation.

In a 2012 letter to the Chinese government that shocked European lawmakers, Airbus’ CEO, Fabrice Brégier, wrote that he “fully supported the Chinese position regarding EU ETS”, adding that the company was “very active” in “persuading the European Commission” and “ensuring that the Chinese airlines are not unfairly impacted by the scheme.”

“If ICAO does not deliver in a year, we need to stand for what we proposed” said Dutch MEP Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, warning that “this goes much further than aviation” since it is about the EU’s “sovereignty” and “power at global level”.

“If we bend to economic and political pressure, we’ll lose all credibility,” Gerbrandy said.

The Dutch MEP's position is shared by low-fare airlines which feel penalised by the decision to freeze the scheme for international airlines, since they fly almost exclusively in Europe. John Hanlon, secretary-general of the low fare airlines association (ELFAA), said the EU needed to “make clear that its ultimatum is real” by sticking up for its original decision to revert to full-scope ETS after one year.

Prolonging the freeze beyond that was "not only discriminatory but also environmentally ineffective, capturing only 20% of EU aviation emissions of CO2 while letting long-haul flights off the hook,” Hanlon stressed.

In his draft report, Peter Liese is pushing the Commission to shorten its current 2020 deadline and revert to a full-scope ETS from 2016, if no agreement on global measures is found in ICAO.

Earmarking revenues

Liese said he wanted the EU to use the time left under the freezing decision to impose an earmarking of revenues generated from the auctioning of emission permits, an idea that is not well-received by EU member states.

Currently the money goes “into the finance ministries’ pockets”, the Dutch MEP denounced, while it should be used to “mitigate climate change, for research on clean aircrafts and to lower taxes on environmentally-friendly transport”.

If Liese's proposal is approved at an environment committee vote later this week, it will face tough opposition from the Council when negotiations start. But the first resistance could well come from inside Parliament, where members of industry-friendly committees, such as transport and industry, could block Liese’s proposal at a plenary vote in March.

Liese is however actively looking for a compromise with his fellow MEPs, he said.

Bill Hemmings, aviation manager at Transport & Environment, an environmental group, said: "Pursuing anything less than coverage of emissions in EU airspace is environmentally unacceptable. At the same time, not enforcing the existing ETS sends a clear signal to third countries that EU sovereignty doesn't matter and it won't advance efforts to secure agreement on global measures either."

In an effort to tackle aviation's fast-growing contribution to climate change, the European Commission issued a legislative proposal in December 2006 to bring it into the EU's Emissions 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 low carbon-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.

  • 30 Jan.: Vote in the Environment committee on Peter Liese's report on aviation emissions
  • 4 Feb.: EU Council's working group experts to consider the environment committee vote
  • March 2014: Vote in plenary session

Subscribe to our newsletters