US looks at legal action on curbs

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The US on Wednesday raised the threat of legal action over proposals by the European Commission to curb greenhouse gases produced by airlines.

The Commission wants to bring airlines within its emissions trading scheme from about 2011, a move designed to curb the amount of carbon dioxide produced by the industry.

Under the scheme, airlines would have either to cut their emissions or buy carbon permits from other companies. These at present trade at about €18 per tonne of carbon dioxide.

But a senior Bush administration figure indicated on Wednesday that legal action would be considered to stop such a move applying to US-based airlines.

The senior US transport official, who declined to be named, suggested other countries might also challenge the scheme.

A case could be taken to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, and Asian governments might be persuaded to join any legal action.

The US government considers that curbing carbon emissions from US-based airlines flying to and from the EU would amount to a charge, which is not permitted under the Chicago Convention of 1944. This exempts airlines from transit charges. Costs can be levied only for specific services, such as air traffic control or airport services.

The Commission’s plans to embrace aviation under the scheme are at an early stage and it is unclear whether the Commission would seek to include flights that either began or ended outside Europe. Initially, at least, it may prove easier to include only flights within the EU, which would exclude US airlines.

Stavros Dimas, European environment commissioner, dismissed the likelihood of legal action: “We have looked at the legal implications of including flights in the emissions trading scheme and we think it is compatible with the rules of the ICAO [the International Civil Aviation Organisation that groups governments, airlines and regulators]. We do not expect any legal problems. Some members will use various ways to stop it. I do not think they will succeed.”

Under the EU’s carbon trading scheme, companies in some energy-intensive industries are issued with permits for the amount of carbon dioxide they may produce each year. Companies wanting to produce more must buy permits from cleaner businesses with spares.

On Wednesday, the Commission tightened restrictions on greenhouse gases within the EU, by placing tough curbs on carbon dioxide emissions from EU industries under the second phase of the emissions trading scheme, which runs from 2008 to 2012.

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