Parliament set for ‘drama’ over aviation emissions vote


A compromise agreement reached with EU member states earlier this month over carbon emission allowances for aviation is set for rejection in the European Parliament today (19 March) as political groups have rallied to denounce “bullying” from China, Russia and the United States.

The centre-right European Peoples’ Party (EPP) is the only political group certain to support the deal reached with member states over the EU’s emissions trading scheme (ETS) for aviation.

Following the Greens, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group told EURACTIV Tuesday (18 March) that a decision had been taken at party level to reject the deal in a vote due to take place in the European Parliament’s environment committee on Wednesday afternoon (19 March).

“The S&D has rejected the deal,” the source said, explaining that the compromise agreement was “undermining the credibility of the EU”.

The Parliament and Council, which represents the 28 EU member states, started negotiations last month and came to a “watered down” agreement early March. To the disappointment of many MEPs, the compromise deal exempts long-haul flights from the EU aviation emissions directive. The decision is seen as weaker than the initial proposal from the European Commission, and the text voted in Parliament on 30 January, which favour an “airspace approach” covering all airliners flying over the European airspace.

'Bullied like Ukraine'

Chris Davies, a British MEP who is shadow rapporteur on the proposal for the Liberal ALDE group, walked out of the negotiations with the Council and called on his group to reject the deal too.

An angered Davies spoke to EURACTIV, denouncing the so-called "trilogues" with the Council as “an abomination".

"It is not (a) co-decision, there are no arrangements and the Parliament is likely to be run over by the Council,” Davies said. The British MEP explained that the Greek EU presidency, which steers negotiations in the Council, had failed to keep its promises to MEPs on key items, including the date for the 'stop the clock' policy and the allocation of revenues generated by the scheme, which Parliament wants to allocate to global warming policies.

But “on both issues the Council is fixed,” Davies said.

The British MEP also said he was “fed up of being bullied by China and the US, but especially China, who threatens to cancel Airbus orders” if the full-scope of the aviation scheme comes into force.

Threats from third countries led the EU to back down on its ambitious environmental policy for aviation, a sector responsible for 5% of global emissions. In 2012, the European Commission decided to "stop the clock" on the aviation ETS in order to give the time for the United Nations to come up with a global mechanism. China, Russia and the US had complained that the draft European legislation was in breach of international law.

A letter sent by the CEO of Airbus to the Chinese government revealed that the European company had been working to undermine the EU’s attempts to put in place the ETS, despite a ruling by the European Court of Justice that the emissions scheme did not infringe international law.

“Manufacturers of Airbus are afraid of the Chinese reaction, it’s like being Ukraine!” Chris Davies said denouncing, like many others, the “attacks on European sovereignty” from third countries.

Back to full-scope ETS?

When coming to the negotiating table with member states, European lawmakers strongly insisted on shortening the STC deadline to 2016, in order to pressure the UN, and for helping make a mandatory decision on the allocation of revenues from emission allowance auctions for climate change purposes.

Unsatisfied with the outcome of the talks, MEPs could reject the deal entirely this afternoon, leaving the door open, at least in theory, for a return to the original European legislation covering all flights departing and landing on EU territory.

“The full ETS is working, it’s a system that works, it’s easy to calculate and a majority of airlines pay for their allowances,” Davies said, “and those who don’t can be forced to.”

However, reverting to the full ETS is politically unlikely, even if MEPs vote against the agreement today.

“The Commission said it would not enforce a full ETS,” reminded Aoife O’Leary, a policy officer at Transport and Environment (T&E), a green campaign group. “No one believes we will go back to that, but we should fight for the airspace approach,” she said. T&E launched a campaign urging MEPs to vote against the deal because it is “environmentally ineffective and does not put pressure in ICAO”.

By rejecting the deal, opponents also hope to push the member states to “really negotiate”, since “they did not give in very much”, O’Leary said, “and they scared everyone with the timeline.”

Options open

Several options are available for the environment committee rapporteur, Peter Liese, if MEPs reject the agreement today.

Liese could decide to send the report for a plenary vote and table the trilogue agreement in the form of amendments. MEPs are more likely to favour the text in plenary since industry-friendly committees like transport and industry will be voting, too.

Another option, favoured by green campaigners and environment-friendly MEPs, is to go back to trilogue negotiations and force member states to make more concessions.

The decision will be up to the rapporteur of the environment committee, in case of rejection, but the deal could still be adopted if enough MEPs join the EPP in approving the text.

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.

  • 19 March: vote in environment committee on trilogue deal
  • April 2014: Stop the Clock expires
  • 03 April: EP Plenary session  

Subscribe to our newsletters