EU racing against clock to revise aviation pollution law


Kansai Internationall Airport, Osaka, Japan. [Flickr/Luke Ma]

The European Union is drafting an amendment to its aviation emissions trading system (ETS) after world nations reached agreement on a global scheme in October. A proposal will be presented in January, an EU official said, warning time is already running short to get the bill approved.

Peter Vis, a senior advisor at the European Commission in charge of transport decarbonisation, said Europe’s aviation ETS will have to be reconsidered in light of the deal reached at the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in Montreal last October.

Speaking at a EURACTIV event on Wednesday (7 December), Vis said the Commission was preparing “appropriate proposals” in January to ensure EU laws on aviation pollution are in line with the bloc’s international commitments.

International flights have been exempted from the European scheme since 2013 in an effort to avoid a trade war and give ICAO time to craft a global agreement to curb aviation pollution.

China and India were among the countries threatening to boycott the EU scheme, which was initially intended to cover all flights departing or landing in Europe but was later rolled back following international outcry to cover domestic flights only.

Now, Vis said the European Union was running against the clock to make sure its aviation ETS is not reinstated “inadvertently” to cover international flights as of January.

“If we were to allow the ETS to revert to full scope to cover third country flights as well, there would be a risk that we would destabilise those ongoing talks”, Vis said, referring to technical work at ICAO to hammer out the detail of the October deal reached in Montreal. “We’re very conscious of those risks,” he said, adding that the Commission’s January proposal “will try to minimise those”.

“If we don’t want that to happen, we have to all act very quickly,” he added, urging legislators in the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers to stand ready for a quick approval of the revised ETS and “prevent the full scope [of the scheme] reverting inadvertently”.

Asked whether the Commission was considering revising the aviation ETS also for domestic flights, Vis replied, “Yes, we could”.

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.

“Further work” needed at ICAO

Violeta Bulc, the EU’s Transport Commissioner, said she was not “in love” with the ICAO agreement, mainly because it won’t be mandatory before 2027 instead of 2021, like initially requested by the EU.

Vis acknowledged those shortcomings, saying the Global Market-Based Measure (GMBM) agreed at ICAO “still has some further work to be done” and that the Commission “is committed to doing that work well” ahead of its January proposals. Technical groups at ICAO are expected to design the instrument in detail over the next three years.

Jacqueline Foster, a British Conservative MEP who is vice-chair of the European Parliament’s sky and space intergroup, said she favoured dropping the aviation ETS altogether but admitted this wasn’t the majority view in the EU Assembly where most MEPs want to strengthen it.

“If it’s intra-EU, it should be the same system” as the one agreed at ICAO, she insisted, otherwise European airlines will be at a disadvantage compared to international competitors.

EU airline pollution curbs stay in the air until next year

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.

Innovation push

Brian Moran, Vice President of European Government Affairs at US plane-maker Boeing, said whatever scheme is eventually adopted needs to encourage innovation in technologies that will help curb aircraft emissions.

Transport and Environment (T&E), a green campaign group, cited a new independent study which found that almost half (43%) of emissions savings expected in land transport across the European Union will be cancelled out by ships and planes through to 2030.

“Only through innovation can we meet those challenges,” Moran said, citing biofuels among the most valuable solutions to cut aviation emissions.

“We are hitting the boundaries of physics,” he said, adding Boeing was “investing billions and billions” to push those boundaries further.

According to Boeing, the Commission’s Winter Package of energy proposals, presented on 30 November, was a step in the right direction to promote sustainable biomass and “get rid of food-based biofuels” that cause deforestation in developing countries.

He deplored the furious controversy surrounding biofuels, saying the debate “has completely side-tracked us” from the aviation sector’s pledge to achieve carbon-neutral growth by 2020.

For Moran, the aviation sector doesn’t have to wait for so-called second generation biofuels to become available, because sustainable solutions are already there.

“We don’t have to wait that long – we have it,” Moran said. “We’ve flown 2,500 flights on sustainable biofuels,” he added, referring to first-generation biofuels which are already available and certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB), an independent, multi-stakeholder coalition which includes environmental and conservation groups among its members.

The only remaining issue, he said, was to “ramp up production” to meet the aviation sector’s growing demand for sustainable aviation fuels.

Airline flies first commercial jet powered by forest biomass

Alaska Airline passengers have taken to the skies in a “world-first” commercial flight running on sustainable alternative jet fuel made from forest residuals from the Pacific Northwest. EURACTIV’s partner reports.

EU biofuels policy “crap”

Many NGOs, however, are still deeply suspicious of biofuels. Bill Hemmings, Director for Aviation and Shipping at T&E, described the EU’s policy on biofuels as “crap”.

“We don’t need to look any further than the EU’s biofuels policy for road transport to recognise that it is a complete disaster and that it’s full of crap. Worse than that, it’s full of destroying rainforests in countries like Indonesia and the habitat of rare animals like Orangutans,” Hemmings said.

As long as biofuels observe strict environmental criteria and don’t create land displacement, “the industry is welcome”, Hemmings said. “But the record in Europe is pretty appalling so we should be very careful moving forward.”

In any event, he questioned the wisdom of providing any kind of public support for biofuels when the global aviation sector already benefits from €60 billion worth of tax exemptions per year in the form of reduced fuel taxes, VAT and state aid.

Foster agreed that EU biofuels policies have been ill-conceived. But she insisted that only palm oil was causing environmental destruction in developing countries, not first-generation biofuels such as ethanol. “If there was ever something that was really key to the destruction in those areas – it’s palm oil,” she said. “And that’s what we have to manage.”

Commission under fire over post-2020 biofuels targets

The European Commission came under heavy criticism yesterday (30 November) after proposing to phase-out conventional biofuels by 2030.

For Boeing’s Moran, deep decarbonisation in the aviation sector won’t just come from biofuels.

“We need all technologies together,” Moran replied when asked about carbon-cutting innovations in aviation, citing electrification of aircraft systems among a range of solutions currently being developed by the sector. “Are we going to see more electric applications on airplanes? – absolutely,” he said.

Other efficiency gains are expected to come from digitalisation of processes, said Riccardo Procacci, CEO of Avio Aero, an Italian aerospace company owned by GE’s Aviation business which supported the EURACTIV event.

Ron van Manen, Programme Manager at the EU-financed Clean Sky aviation industry research initiative, agreed saying there was “no alternative to aggressive investment in technology” to reduce the aviation sector’s carbon emissions.

Greening air travel

Amid steady growth in air traffic and related polluting emissions, the aerospace industry is rolling up its sleeves to ensure that the sector grows in a carbon-neutral manner as of 2020.

Gibraltar “a side issue”

But the EU registered a setback when EU member states failed to reach agreement on a Single Sky proposal to unify Europe’s fragmented airspace, seen as the most straightforward and cheapest way to cut short aircraft routes and improve fuel efficiency.

“It’s the lack of political will in some member states,” said Foster, referring to a continuing dispute between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar which has held up negotiations.

“And Gibraltar is just a side issue if I may say,” Foster said. “There is no excuse to use Gibraltar, Brexit or anything else to stop the progression of the Single European Sky. It is lack of political will, it is total intransigence in some member states,” which she said are not prepared to take on the air traffic controllers “who think the world will stop” if traffic routes are managed at European level.

Gibraltar dispute delays EU airspace reform

A British-Spanish territorial dispute over Gibraltar threatened to block implementation of an agreement by European Union member states on Wednesday (3 December) to merge national air corridors to create shorter flight paths and cut costs and carbon dioxide emissions.

The airline sector, like the maritime sector, has its own UN agency, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which is responsible for organising the reduction of its CO2 emissions. ICAO was tasked by the Kyoto Protocol with addressing emissions from the sector.

It has been difficult to reach a global agreement. In 2012, with no deal having been made, the EU included aviation emissions in its Emissions Trading Scheme. The decision sparked a backlash from the industry and foreign countries, like China and India who refused to comply with the scheme and threatened the EU with commercial retaliation measures.

The EU’s temporary halt to the ETS was intended to allow time for the ICAO to devise a global alternative. But in the meantime, international airlines which bitterly attacked the cap and trade scheme at every turn will be exempted from it, while intra-European airlines, which had supported it, will not.

>>Read: Hedegaard stops clock on aviation emissions law

As a whole, the aviation industry continues to fiercely resist market-based measures as anything more than a stopgap, advocating instead a formula of technological and operational improvements - plus the wider use of biofuels - to reduce emissions.

Airlines make up 2% of worldwide CO2 emissions. But the doubling of passengers every 15 years has made it a growing source of greenhouse gases. Due to the strong link between the sector and fossil fuels, reducing its CO2 emission is a challenge. The problem of electricity storage rules out its use in the air, which thus leaves airline manufacturers, which have promised to stabilise their CO2 emissions by 2020, with few options.

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