EU lawmakers reject deal to exempt foreign flights from CO2 charges

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Lawmakers in the European Parliament's Environment Committee voted on Wednesday (19 March) to reject a compromise deal exempting long-haul flights from the EU's aviation emissions scheme until the end of 2016, saying the EU would not bow to foreign pressure.

The Parliament committee vote raised the prospect of a return to stringent polluting rules on foreign airlines vigorously opposed by China, Russia and the United States as infringing their sovereignty.

The committee members in Brussels failed to pass the deal brokered by EU diplomats earlier this month to extend a so-called "stop the clock" measure exempting intercontinental flights from regulation under the bloc's Emissions Trading System (ETS).

The decision still needs to be confirmed by a vote in the full European Parliament meeting in plenary session.

'MEPs do not like to be bullied'

"Today's vote simply means that MEPs do not like being bullied by third countries into dismantling EU climate legislation," said German MEP and chair of the environment committee, Matthias Groote.

The motion will now go to a full vote by the European Parliament, scheduled for 3 April.

"The committee result is most worrying," said Athar Husain Khan, CEO of the Association of European Airlines (AEA).

But Aoife O'Leary of Brussels-based green group Transport & Environment called it a "bad deal" that was rightly rejected.

"This decision sends the clear signal to political leaders in member states, to industry and to foreign countries that the EU's sovereignty is not subject to external bullying," she said.

Negotiators from the European Parliament, the European Commission, and member states represented by current EU president Greece, on 4 March agreed a tentative deal to extend an existing suspension of EU law for flights into and out of the 28-nation bloc.

Since 2012, airlines have been legally compelled to surrender a permit for every tonne of carbon dioxide they emit, during the entirety of their flights. Those rules were temporarily suspended later that year, amid international pressure.

Trade tensions

Failure to get final agreement on the compromise before the end of April would mean the original law is reinstated, likely reigniting trade tensions with Europe's major trading partners such as China and the United States, who said the measure breached sovereignty rules.

"Given the international controversy around the aviation ETS that we have witnessed during the past years, we believe that a full ETS is not a realistic option and that it would have a negative impact on European airlines, their operations and their employees," the AEA's Khan said.

The vote of the cross-party environment committee is a preliminary indication of whether the proposal, which is supported by other parliamentary committees including those governing transport and industry, can win enough support in the full parliament.

"I think plenary will pass it. Everyone agrees that reinstating the original compliance coverage on 30 April is unacceptable. From a timeframe standpoint, there is too much pressure not to pass it," said Emil Dimantchev, an analyst with Thomson Reuters Point Carbon.

In its current form, the agreement would maintain the suspension of the law for intercontinental flights until 2016, with a provision to revert back to making all airlines pay for allowances in 2017 if a global deal on curtailing aviation emissions cannot be agreed.

The UN's International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) last October agreed it would deliver a global plan to curb airline emissions by 2016 for implementation in 2020.

The European Commission's responded by proposing an amended measure to only charge aircraft for emissions in EU airspace.

That proposal, backed by many European lawmakers but rejected by Britain, France and Germany, eventually evolved into the compromise struck earlier this month

French centre-right MEP, Françoise Grossetête (EPP) called the vote « irresponsible »: “A balanced deal was found limiting the application of this mechanism to intra-European flights until the next ICAO assembly. This would have helped find a global agreement on the global market-based mechanism limiting emissions from international aviation. Instead, the vote puts aviation in an extremely uncomfortable position without any legal visibility and under threat of a trade war with third countries.”

“The ENVI result is most worrying” said Athar Husain Khan, the CEO at the Association of European Airlines. The Parliament Environment Committee "missed the chance to provide  clarity today  on the way forward for the  aviation  ETS. If the trilogue  agreement  is  not formally  adopted  before  30  April,  the  full  ETS  would  be  applicable. Given the international controversy around the aviation ETS that we have witnessed during the past years, we believe that a full ETS is not a realistic option and that it would have a negative impact on European airlines, their operations and their employees. Moreover, this move would  put  at risk the  agreement reached during the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s Assembly last year and undermine the efforts to reach a global deal on reducing emissions from international aviation."

Carbon Market Watch welcomes the rejection of this bad deal for the climate and calls on the Parliament’s plenary to follow suit on 3 April at the plenary vote. Carbon Market Watch Director Eva Filzmoser commented: “We welcome today’s vote as a strong message to deal with international airline emissions as soon as possible and not wait for an international deal that may not be as environmentally effective, presumed to only start from 2020.”

Aoife O’Leary, policy officer for aviation at green campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E), said: “The aviation ETS is the only international climate measure in place today that tackles aviation’s soaring emissions. The trilogue compromise, which would effectively have dismantled the ETS, was a bad deal and rightly rejected by the Parliament. This decision sends the clear signal to political leaders in member states, to industry and to foreign countries that the EU’s sovereignty is not subject to external bullying.”

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.

  • 3 April: Vote in plenary session on the agreement

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