Europe heads for international aviation emissions showdown

February 04, 2014

Asian airlines flying to Europe may be in for a bit of a shock later this year if the European Parliament’s environment committee has its way. On Monday it backed changes to a draft law on greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation industry that would see international carriers obliged to account for all GHGs emitted on flights to and from Europe, starting in 2016.

If this is carried through to final legislation it will effectively reinstate the extra-territorial provision of the European Union’s exiting law on aviation emissions, which has been suspended for the last two years in the face of strong objections from non-EU airlines and countries

That “if”, however, is quite significant since the final law needs to be signed off not just by the full European Parliament but also by the Council of the European Union (made up of government representatives from individual EU states) and the European Council, which is comprised of the heads of state of government of the EU member states.

The environmental committee legislators are seeking to amend a proposal put forward by the European Commission in October that would apply the European Union’s emissions trading system (ETS) to aviation emissions within the European Economic Area (EEA, covering the 28 EU Member States plus Norway and Iceland). The Commission’s proposal was for the EEA-only regulation to remain in place until 2020 when a global regime for controlling aviation emissions, to be agreed at the next triennial assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in 2016.

Some of Europe’s leading nations are, however, keen to water down the Commission’s proposal in favor of one of including only flights that originate and terminate within the EAA under the ETS. The European Union’s key institutions are, therefore, currently at odds over aviation emissions policy with Greece, which currently holds the revolving six-month presidency of Council of the European Union, prioritizing agreement before its term ends in June.

The disagreement over how to go forward on aviation emissions appears to be a microcosm of the conflict over the EU’s climate change policy direction. In recent weeks there has been considerable debate over climate and energy policy goals for 2030 amid concern about the impact on European competitiveness.

On 22 January, under the rubric of “2030 climate and energy goals for a competitive, secure and low-carbon EU economy”, the European Commission proposed cutting GHG emissions by 40 percent below the 1990 level, with an EU-wide binding target for renewable energy of at least 27 percent. While a step up from the current 20-20-20 target (a 20 percent cut in CO2 and 20 percent renewables by 2020) critics say the EU’s proposed new targets lack ambition and is little more than business as usual.

For those intent on forcing the pace of international climate negotiations, the perceived diminishment of EU leadership is obviously a worry. The aviation emission timeline put forward for the European Parliament’s environmental committee is clearly an attempt to ensure pressure remains on ICAO to come up with an effective agreement.

“By backing coverage of airspace, MEPs are ensuring the system captures emissions from all flights – both intra-Europe and long-haul – over European territory,” Bill Hemmings, aviation manager at Transport & Environment green lobby, told Bloomberg. “The decision also reinforces EU sovereignty, something a number of member states seem reluctant to uphold.”

Just as clearly, however, the European Aviation industry is well outside its comfort zone. The Association of European Airlines (AEA), representing carriers including Air France-KLM Group, Deutsche Lufthansa AG and British Airways, told Bloomberg that it regrets the outcome of the environment committee’s vote.