MEPs defy EU states on aviation emissions law

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The European parliament's environment committee has voted to apply the EU’s emissions trading system to all airlines operating anywhere in the bloc’s air space, even though France, the UK and other states want the scheme confined to intra-EU flights.

The vote in the Parliament’s environment committee would create a zone that stops at the EU’s borders. Within it, airlines would be charged for their emissions until 2020, when the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) says a global aviation deal will take effect.

If approved by the European Council, revenues raised from the scheme would in future be spent on climate mitigation and adaptation measures, rather than going to national finance ministries. But such approval is not a done deal. .

‘Trilogue’ negotiations will be fast-tracked between Parliament, the European Commission, which proposed the compromise, and member states, many of which oppose it. 

Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, the vice-chair of Parliament's environment committee told EURACTIV that the vote – by 49 to 6 – gave a “very strong mandate for negotiations with Council” which represents the 28 EU member states.

“It is going to be very difficult to find an agreement,” he cautioned. “The whole debate has become extremely polarised but our position is very strong because without a deal we go back to the previous system which is much tougher.”

The EU’s sovereignty was on the line if it backed down, Gerbrandy argued, and a block on agreement with Council delaying the measure past an April deadline was now a realistic possibility. This would reinstate carbon charges on all international flights.

“There is no reason why we should give in to Council,” the Dutch Liberal MEP said. “If we are to remain credible as an EU in our commitment to the fight against climate change, we have to send a clear signal to the rest of world that we will not exclude sectors like aviation.”

An infamous letter sent by Airbus to the Chinese minister Li Jiaxian seeking approval for aircraft contracts after their "joint efforts" had scuppered the ETS, is believed to have played a crucial role in the thinking of EU leaders.

'Economic blackmail'

“It is economic blackmail and we can never surrender to it,” said Gerbrandy. “I think we should be very strict here and stand against that sort of thing.”

Many MEP’s have been outraged that several EU states are currently not applying the scheme to airlines such as Air China and China Eastern, as well as Indian and Saudi carriers.

Bill Hemmings, the aviation manager at green think tank Transport and Environment also called on the EU to stand firm in the face of “extreme lobbying”.

“As most emissions come from long haul flights – not short haul ones – it would be ineffective, unfair and discriminatory not to include all airlines operating in European airspace within the scheme,” he told EURACTIV.

He welcomed a letter sent to T&E by the British under-secretary of state for transport, Robert Goodwill, which EURACTIV has seen, that says the UK will begin enforcement proceedings against rogue airlines next month.

“The UK remains fully committed to enforcing Aviation EU ETS,” Goodwill’s letter says. “We are working closely with the Commission and other member states on a harmonised approach which respects EU and national laws and which is sensitive to the ongoing negotiations.”

“We have provisionally agreed to proceed with the next enforcement step on 20 February 2014,” the missive concludes.

Carbon surcharge

Originally, the European Commission imposed a carbon surcharge on European and international airlines for the entire duration of their journeys, forcing them to account for all their emissions, rather than the 35-40% covered under the current compromise.

But despite support for the original measure from the European Court of Justiceindustry analystsacademics and short-haul carriers, the EU was forced to ‘stop the clock’ on the scheme for a year under pressure from China, India, Russia and the United States.

These states argued that the system unfairly penalised their airlines and obstructed the negotiation of a global carbon trading scheme being agreed at ICAO.

However, the ‘one year' pause in the scheme runs out in April 2014 and, if it is not extended by an agreed compromise such as the Commission's proposal, it must legally snap back into force in April. That in turn could impact upon ICAO's promise last October to take a decision in 2016, which could come into force in 2020.  

The European Commission’s hand in negotiations with ICAO is thought to have been forced by a collapse of support from the EU’s ‘Big 3’ – France, Germany and the UK – who have since pushed for the Emissions Trading System (ETS) to be applied only to airlines operating inside the EU.

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.

  • 4 Feb.: EU Council's working group experts to consider the environment committee vote
  • March 2014: Vote in plenary session
  • April 2014: Deadline after which the EU's 'Stop the Clock' proposal on ETS runs out
  • September 2016: ICAO Assembly to be presented with global market-based mechanism proposal
  • 2020: ICAO market-based mechanism could come into effect

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