October 4, 2013 7:28 pm

UN agency calls for global scheme to tackle airline emissions

A United Continental Holdings Inc. aircraft approaches the tarmac while landing at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago©Bloomberg

A breakthrough in efforts to reduce airlines’ carbon pollution was made on Friday when member countries of a UN agency that sets aviation standards backed the case for a global scheme to tackle the environmental problem.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation, which has 191 member countries, supported the need for a global mechanism that could cut airlines’ carbon emissions from 2020.

However, the deal reached at ICAO’s assembly in Montreal created much uncertainty for the EU’s contentious scheme, which seeks to make EU and non-EU airlines pay for their carbon pollution.

The European Commission had been hoping the ICAO assembly would approve the EU’s inclusion of foreign airlines in its emissions trading scheme, but a group of developing countries, including China, India and Russia, ensured this did not happen.

Several developing countries – together with some developed nations including the US – are strongly opposed to how any airline landing at a European airport potentially falls within the scope of the EU scheme.

These countries regarded the EU scheme as a unilateral invasion of their sovereignty because airlines’ flights originating far outside European airspace were affected, and the dispute raised fears of a trade war.

Todd Stern, the US special envoy for climate change, said before the ICAO assembly endorsed a resolution backing the case for a global scheme to tackle airlines’ carbon emissions: “After some very challenging discussions, including compromises by all parties, ICAO has made a strong commitment in favour of taking multilateral action to tackle climate change.”

Siim Kallas, the European commissioner for transport who co-ordinated EU negotiations at the ICAO assembly, said the deal in Montreal “avoids a damaging conflict among trading partners”.

However, it is unclear in the wake of the ICAO deal exactly how the EU will apply its emissions trading scheme to airlines from outside the regional bloc.

Under the EU’s original plans that took effect in January last year, foreign airlines had to account for their emissions on the full length of all flights landing at European airports – for example, from Beijing to London.

Last November, the commission said it was suspending these arrangements for one year to try and increase the chances of an agreement at the ICAO assembly.

Then earlier this month the commission held out further concessions, saying only the portion of foreign airlines’ flights that took place over European airspace would fall within the scope of the EU emissions trading scheme.

Connie Hedegaard, European climate action commissioner, said the EU “will now look at how to proceed up to 2020 with our EU [emissions trading scheme]”.

One possibility is that the EU scheme is confined to that section of foreign airlines’ flights that happen in European airspace – in line with the concessions outlined this month.

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However, officials said some members of the European Parliament, a strong supporter of extending the EU scheme to aviation, might push for a restoration of its original scope, to include the full length of all international flights landing at European airports.

If this did happen, it could resurrect fears of a trade war. Airbus, the European aircraft manufacturer, complained last year that it could not finalise orders for passenger jets with Chinese airlines because of Beijing’s opposition to the inclusion of foreign airlines in the EU emissions trading scheme.

The ICAO assembly’s endorsement of a global scheme to reduce airlines’ carbon emissions means aviation is the first industry to agree to such an arrangement.

The so-called global market-based mechanism could be an offset scheme, under which airlines counterbalance any increase in their emissions after 2020 by purchasing carbon permits generated from projects that reduce pollution elsewhere.

The ICAO assembly has tasked the body’s council, its governing body, to come up with detailed plans for the global mechanism by 2016.

Jean Leston of WWF-UK, the conservation organisation, said there was still a “long uphill battle ahead” to get the global scheme finalised.

“ICAO will need to demonstrate a lot more ambition and commitment than it has in the past if we are ever to see a market-based mechanism approved in three years' time,” she added.

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