EU airline pollution curbs stay in the air until next year

Airplane vapor trails over Uccle, Belgium. [Georgi Gotev]

A European Union decision on whether to include international flights in its scheme to curb airline pollution will not come until next year at the earliest after the bloc’s executive has assessed a global deal which was finally approved last week.

International flights have been exempted from the EU’s emissions trading system (ETS) since 2013 in an effort to avoid a trade war and give the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) time to craft its agreement.

Europe wants a tougher regime than that agreed by ICAO members, and has reserved the right to impose its own rules rather than adopting the ICAO measures which curb pollution from flights at 2020 levels.

Global deal on aviation emissions puts EU scheme under pressure

The 191 members of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) sealed a deal on Thursday (6 October) aimed at ensuring carbon neutral growth for the booming sector after 2020, calling into question the future of the EU’s existing scheme to reduce airlines emissions.

“The Commission will early next year present a review to the European Parliament and the (European) Council on the outcome we reached at ICAO before deciding on the next steps,” Henrik Hololei, director general of the European Commission’s transport department, told a parliamentary committee.

While the EU exemption automatically runs out at the end of the year, airlines will only have to surrender carbon emissions allowances in the first quarter of 2018, meaning the EU has until then to reach a final decision.

Hololei did not say whether the ICAO deal justified extending the exemption. Any Commission proposal has to be agreed by the European Parliament and member states in the European Council.

“The Commission will thoroughly assess the (ICAO) resolution and consider what action to take with respect to the EU ETS,” he told EU lawmakers in the transport committee.

“Of course I would have wanted it to be more ambitious.”

After the deal was announced Alexandre de Juniac, Director General and chief executive of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said that it “ensures that the aviation industry’s economic and social contributions are matched with cutting-edge efforts on sustainability.”

But EU lawmakers have been critical of the deal, saying it does not go far enough to reduce emissions from flights, but have left open whether they could apply the EU scheme to foreign carriers.

“The EU should be welcoming of this deal, but cautious of completely doing away with its own safeguards contained in the EU ETS,” Seb Dance, a lawmaker from the centre-left group, the second-biggest in the Brussels legislature, told Reuters in an email after the ICAO deal.

“The spirit we should go forward with is certainly one of collaboration but the EU member states should retain the right to move faster on tackling climate change when desired.”

Law firm Reed Smith said it was more likely the EU would extend the exemption post 2016 given the commitment of major aviation states to take part in the ICAO offsetting scheme in its first voluntary phase from 2021.

IATA did not immediately respond to questions about what the ICAO deal would likely mean for the EU ETS exclusion for international carriers.

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