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Last Friday, the United Nation’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) hailed a “dramatic” and “historic” agreement; to move forward on a proposal to develop a global scheme to tackle aviation pollution “capable of being implemented by 2020”. Not exactly a commitment carved in stone, but finally, something is on the table, even if, for now, it’s no more than the slug in the salad; we have to wait to 2016 to see what this deal might be. It’s difficult to get too excited about this news. True, discussions about tackling aviation emissions had proven intractable so some movement is indeed reassuring. But in doing so ICAO has furiously attempted to drag down the EU’s own approach to reducing emissions, the EU emissions trading scheme (ETS). The EU must stand its ground, and not delay in tackling aviation pollution.

ICAO procrastination

Photo ©Guy Lavigueur

After more than a decade of inaction, in 2012 the EU introduced aviation into the EU ETS, frustrated by ICAO’s unwillingness to address pollution from the aviation sector. Outraged, countries from China to the USA objected to being included, particularly for pollution that occurred outside of the EU airspace. The EU responded by ‘stopping the clock’ in 2012, allowing international aviation to stay outside the EU ETS for a year of discussion (while European airlines remained included). Back then, the EU had various ‘red lines’ that ICAO would have to meet to avoid the automatic reinclusion of international aviation. With these in mind it’s difficult to look at this latest ICAO proposal and see it as a real success. The EU had aspired for a global ‘market-based mechanism’ that would cut emissions, whilst the draft proposal is for “carbon neutral growth”. “Specific targets for countries” have not yet appeared. The language of Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR) as well as a ‘1% de minimis’ clause are included, further weakening an international scheme. And where Stop the clock called for “clear progress”, the attack on the EU ETS is a step back. Crucially the ICAO agreement seeks to prevent the EU imposing its scheme on non-EU carriers, even within its own airspace, by requiring “mutual agreement”.

With the clock ticking, the EU must now decide on what to do. Given the slow pace of legislation, it must effectively have decided what to do by January, after which it will become too late to prevent the “stop the clock” derogation bouncing back, and re-including international aviation automatically. The EU could now accept ICAO’s verdict, removing third parties from its scheme and leaving domestic airlines uncompetitive against international carriers, and wait for 2020 in the hope that a global scheme kicks in. However, the EU is already labouring under the knowledge that the global scheme will likely be much weaker environmentally than the EU ETS, and there’s no guarantee that a Jarndyce v Jarndyce diplomatic tussle won’t hold the global scheme up well past the end of this decade. The EU ETS needs to continue, with minimal compromise to the proposal the EU came up with in August. All airlines, regardless if they are EU or international, must take responsibility for their externalities and pay for their pollution within the EU’s airspace.

The EU has had the legal right to insist on this since the 1947 Chicago Convention on Aviation, and no country or countries should be allowed to use an international platform to roll back on this right. European airlines abide by laws imposed on third countries and international airlines must do the same in the EU.