The European Union’s regulations aimed at curbing global airline emissions have been around in a diluted form for years, but it seems like now the rules will never rise to their initially intended purpose. As originally conceived, the airline portion of the Emissions Trading Scheme would have applied to intra-European airline flights as well as international flights in and out of the EU. Now that seems like a pipe dream.
In 2014, the EU decided to “stop the clock” on the inclusion of international flights in the ETS through 2016 with the intention of bringing international flights back into the carbon-reducing fold at that point.
After the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) voted in October to adopt Resolution 22/2, a global market-based measure for airline emissions, the EU decided that the years of push back from the international community regarding airline emissions wasn’t their problem anymore.
As a result, it’s now been decided that the airline ETS will only apply to intra-European flights, in perpetuity, forever and ever. There is a caveat, though—European regulators will revisit the policy if they determine the ICAO plan doesn’t go far enough in reducing carbon emissions.
With the new decision, which now goes to the European Parliament, the EU seems to be sending a clear signal that having a mandatory carbon-curbing regulation for international flights is more trouble than it’s worth.
“Following ICAO’s landmark agreement, the European Union is now focused on getting the global scheme up and running,” European Commissioner for Transport Violeta Bulc said in a statement announcing the change. “We are serious about achieving carbon-neutral growth for aviation, and we will provide technical and financial assistance to make it happen. Aviation is a global business and no country can be left behind.”
There is no impact for international flights flying into or out of Europe, but groups like the European Regions Airline Association are now seeking to make sure European airlines don’t have to eventually deal with two separate rules—one for intra-Europe flights, the other for international flights. The ERA has also called for renewed focus on the Single European Sky program, an initiative launched by the European Commission in 2004 to seek legislative solutions for meeting future capacity and safety needs at a European level, rather than a local level, which would improve infrastructure for European airlines.
Including international flights in the air portion of the EU’s emissions trading scheme now seems like a pipe dream.
The organization is also concerned that the ETS regulation as passed will not be an effective way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and as such, would burden airlines with additional paperwork without really making an impact.
“Our members now have clarity on what is expected, but we would like to see a further commitment that ultimately the EU ETS will be replaced by [ICAO’s rule],” ERA Director General Simon McNamara said. “As an industry, we have already committed to addressing our climate impact and we are investing in technology and making operational improvements every day. It is time for EU states to make the same commitment and put a renewed effort into delivering major infrastructure projects such as the Single European Sky that have been gaining little headway recently. Arguably, these projects have much more potential to reduce aviation’s CO2 emissions and improve flight efficiency than economic instruments such as the EU ETS.”
Peter Liese, a member of the EU Parliament, said international flights from Europe shouldn’t get a free pass on emissions rules, and that keeping airlines out of emissions requirements entirely is “unfair to other sectors.”
In a legal update published in late January before the European changes were announced, attorneys at Vedder Price LLC said industry watchers think the ICAO resolution ultimately turned the organization’s initial goals into “the lowest common denominator to enable all parties to show a tangible result for their efforts.”
“With international aviation effectively being given the green light to continue increasing carbon emissions faster than technology can reduce them, non-aviation industries will have to redouble their efforts to compensate in order to have any chance of achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement by 2020,” the firm continued.
Then on Jan. 31, the policy site Energy Collective published an article by Stig Schjølset, a carbon analysis executive at Thomson Reuters, who argued that carbon-curbing regulations haven’t targeted lofty enough goals.
“The fundamental problem is, of course, that policy makers have been afraid to set ambitious reduction targets and/or to implement policies to achieve them,” Schjølset wrote. “Without ambitious targets, you will not have large emission reductions— regardless of whether the preferred policy tool is taxes, direct regulations or emissions trading.”
On a related note, the Swedish government recently announced an environmental policy that, as ABC News
put it, commits to “zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 and a 70 percent cut to emissions in the domestic transport sector by 2030.”
Will ambitious carbon-curbing rules ever emerge for the airline industry? It seems that if ICAO’s goals are too modest, which is an oft-levied criticism, curbing carbon emissions in the airline industry may well fall short of the EU’s initial objective.
Jon Ross, a former American Shipper editor, writes about air transport and freight issues. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.