Aviation and Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Identifying Transatlantic and Global Solutions

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Michael Mehling
© The German Marshall Fund of the United States

October 30, 2012

The Heinrich Böll Foundation's European Union office and the German Marshall Fund of the United States co-hosted an event on greenhouse gas emissions from the international aviation sector.

Greenhouse gas emissions from aviation are one of the fastest-growing sources of climate pollution, but they are currently unregulated. Since January 2012, the European Union has controversially included aviation emissions in the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS). This move is opposed by the United States and other countries, which favor a solution in the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the relevant standard-setting body. In this instance why is Europe, the champion of multilateralism, imposing a law on its own rather than waiting for an international agreement?

For the EU, the ICAO negotiations between countries for an international agreement are progressing too slowly. Instead the EU considers the inclusion of aviation in its ETS to serve as a potential building block that can be adapted within a global agreement at a later date, while in the meantime making progress towards climate action in the aviation sector. The United States, India, China and other nations, see the EU ETS in a different light. The inclusion of aviation emissions requires any airline which lands in Europe to purchase allowances for the emissions of its entire flight, not only within European airspace. Incoming flights can only be exempted if equivalent emission reduction measures are taken in the country of origin. This EU law is viewed by some countries as an extraterritorial measure with dangerous consequences for non-European airlines.

The unilateral nature of the law serves as the main criticism from countries who do not wish to comply, who claim the law infringes on their national sovereignty. Some countries have already threatened to prohibit their airlines from complying, with the risk that the dispute could lead to retaliatory trade measures. Europe is insisting on its right to take a lead on climate change and wants to find a multilateral agreement within ICAO as soon as possible. But is a unilateral EU approach really the best way to force action at the ICAO? The persistence of the EU in upholding the inclusion of aviation in the ETS may even distract and delay an international agreement in the ICAO if the dispute is not resolved amicably. To avoid these pitfalls a transatlantic solution between the United States and EU is urgently needed to stabilize the situation. At the same time, the concerns of developing countries should also be addressed to ensure a cap on aviation emissions does not violate the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” in the fight against climate change.

This event served to launch a GMF policy brief by Nigel Purvis (GMF Senior Fellow and President of Climate Advisers) and Sam Grausz (Climate Advisers) on “Air Supremacy: The Surprisingly Important Dogfight over Climate Pollution from International Aviation”. Michael Mehling, President of Ecologic US, also presented a discussion draft of a paper that on the same topic. The other speakers included Thomas J. White, Deputy Chief of Mission, U.S. Mission to the EU; Elina Bardram, Head of Unit – International Carbon Market, Aviation and Maritime, DG CLIMA, European Commission; and Sam Van den Plas, Policy Officer for Climate and Energy, World Wildlife Fund European Policy Office. Bastion Hermisson, Director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s EU Office, moderated the discussion.

Discussions at the table included the controversy of the inclusion of aviation in the EU ETS and the risk of escalation into a full-blown trade dispute, as well as ways to defuse the dispute and the possibilities for progress on reducing emissions from aviation.