EU lawmakers approve revision of aviation emissions rule

7 April 2014

The European Parliament backed a "compromise" revision to the aviation portion of the EU's Emissions Trading System (ETS) last week, agreeing to exempt international long-haul flights from the controversial measure until at least 2017. The updated policy, now in its final stages, will need to be approved by the bloc's ministers in order to become law.

The vote, which passed by a 458-120 margin, with 24 abstentions, came just weeks after the Parliament's own environment committee rejected that same legislation in favour of a more expansive version. The version approved last week had been negotiated in early March during trilogue talks between members of the European Commission, Council, and Parliament. (See BioRes, 13 March 2014, and Bridges Trade BioRes Review, November 2013)

Under the original 2012 aviation emissions rule, airline carriers were required to surrender carbon permits for all flights landing or taking off from EU member states, along with Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway. Emissions were set to be charged over the flight's entire trajectory, including those portions taking place outside EU airspace.

Towards a global deal?

Despite facing significant pressure from key trading partners - such as China and the US - to revise the policy, the EU had long held that it would only change its stance should there be signs of movement at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) towards a global agreement for the regulation of aviation emissions. The persistent floundering of the UN talks on the subject had prompted the 28-nation bloc to add aviation to its flagship ETS in 2012.

However, after signs of potential movement on the ICAO front, EU lawmakers agreed to "stop the clock" on its aviation emissions rule for one year, starting in March 2013, in the hopes of spurring the international negotiations forward. 

Under the freeze, all flights taking off or landing outside the EU have been exempted from the scheme, with emissions only being charged on intra-EU flights. That moratorium, however, is set to be lifted by the end of this month, forcing EU officials to scramble to find an alternative to put in its place.

Last autumn, the 191 member states of the UN civil aviation body agreed that they would develop a global market-based mechanism to tackle aviation emissions, pledging to finalise such a scheme by their next assembly meeting in 2016.

While the EU welcomed the move, the ICAO resolution also included a section saying that countries must seek the agreement of other nations before imposing their own market-based measures, in what was seen as an implicit rejection of regional policies such as the original Brussels scheme. 

After initially proposing a modified plan that would have taxed the portions of long-haul flights taking place within EU airspace, the Commission changed tack to voice support for the complete exemption of such flights. However, Brussels has signalled that if the 2016 ICAO Assembly does not lead to a global agreement, the original 2012 regulation will be restored in 2017.

Backlash

Environmental groups have been quick to condemn EU lawmakers for caving to foreign "economic blackmail," with some parliamentarians themselves also criticising the full plenary's overturning of the environment committee's decision.

The recent deal shows the political weakness of Europe, Dutch Liberal European parliamentarian Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy said, and makes "the EU an even tinier political dwarf."

Meanwhile, Chris Davies of the Liberal Democrats took to social media website Twitter to call his fellow MEPs "shameful" for "bowing to Chinese pressure."

However, Peter Liese - the EU lawmaker tasked with shepherding the legislation through Parliament - said after Thursday's vote that the regulation was "the best possible compromise."

"It will continue the ETS and that's the most important thing. Internal European flights will be covered and it doesn't matter if it's British Airways or Air China," he said.

The 2016 deadline was also a positive development, he added. "We have a very clear message for the world. Either we get a global agreement in 2016 or we will have the full scope of the EU's ETS back in 2017," he said.

ICTSD reporting; "China's trade war threats over aviation emissions ‘not serious', MEPS say," EURACTIV, 1 April 2014; "Commission backs down on aviation emissions," EURACTIV, 3 April 2014.

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