EU Assesses International Aviation Emissions Deal – Glass Half Empty or Half Full (10/15)     Print Email

By Brian Beary, Washington Correspondent for Europolitics

A global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in aviation has been concluded at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in Montreal. From an EU standpoint, the deal has positives and negatives. The green light was given to create a global cap and trade system for airplane emissions, but a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the EU’s highly-controversial Emissions Trading System (ETS) application to air transport.

EU negotiators’ hopes were raised in early September when ICAO’s 31-member state Council passed a resolution that explicitly permitted the EU ETS to be implemented before a global ETS came into effect. Under that compromise, the EU would agree to limit the scope of its ETS to the portion of flights over EU airspace. The original EU law, enacted back in 2008, covered emissions for the entire duration of flights, including in other countries’ or international airspace.  


However, that ICAO Council compromise got significantly amended by the full Assembly of ICAO’s 191 member states. The final text passed on 4 October says that the EU, if it still wants to proceed with its own ETS, “should” obtain the agreement of other countries. A source present for the final tense negotiations described the EU representatives as being “crestfallen” when this clause was added, while the big emerging economies like China and India, who resolutely oppose the EU ETS, were elated.  

The EU must now make that case it is allowed to apply its ETS in EU airspace without the consent of others because the word “should” is hortatory – unlike “shall,” which is generally considered legally binding.  African nations mostly ended up siding with the emerging economies, while the United States steered clear of this particular tussle. The global ETS is supposed to be finalized by 2016 and to take effect from 2020, with aviation emission levels to remain stable from that point.  

The Montreal deal is another chapter in the two decade-long saga that has seen the EU push, with limited success, the reluctant international community to take more ambitious steps to address climate change. While the Obama administration has been active in adopting regulations to reduce emissions in the road transport and power generation sectors, aviation emissions have been a bone of contention with the EU. A law signed by the President in 2012, empowers his administration to bar US carriers from participating in the EU ETS. In response, the EU decided to suspend implementation of the ETS to give the ICAO talks a chance. But that ‘stop-the-clock’ suspension will expire in April 2014.  

Looking forward, the European Commission has just proposed tweaking the ETS to limit its application to EU airspace. The European Parliament and Council of Ministers will have the final say on whether to go this route. Of course, it is quite possible that other countries will object even to that. As Brussels mulls over its options, it is clear the battle is far from over.