Editorial: A Clock Still Ticking

It was too long coming and it burdens European carriers with carbon taxes while their rivals get a reprieve, but the European Commission’s decision to suspend the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) for a year is without question a welcome move (see article, page 54, December 2012 ATW).

After so much political grandstanding, EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard made the right decision to “stop the clock,” as she put it, and give ICAO the necessary time and space to reach a global solution on aviation emissions taxation without the negative, divisive distraction of EU ETS.

To be clear, the EC overreached with ETS, unilaterally imposing fees on non-EU airlines in such a way whose timing and international validity was at best questionable. The sovereignty issues this raised and the inevitable threats of trade wars and retaliatory actions it prompted have been harmful to an industry that is vital to the global economy.

The Commission also took far too long to offer a compromise; its prolonged stubbornness on this issue makes it almost as guilty as ICAO in preventing, rather than promoting, aviation environmental responsibility.

But it must also be pointed out that ICAO is not blameless. Its bureaucratic, treacle-slow approach to establishing a global carbon fee system has made it look out of touch with the times and inevitably raised the frustration levels of European lawmakers. From that perspective, ETS became a people-pleaser and revenue-earner. European politicians looked good to their constituents as they stood up against “polluters” such as the airline industry in general and China and the US in particular. Given Europe’s dire economic circumstances, ETS was a rare golden opportunity and a political no-brainer.

So the first thing ICAO must now do is demonstrate, quickly and decisively, that it is up to task it has been given and which the rest of the world says is its rightful responsibility. The negotiations ahead will still be difficult; they will require diplomatic deftness. Most critically, they will require strong leadership by ICAO and swiftness of purpose.

Nor are the airlines and the trade associations that represent them off the hook. IATA, AAPA, ERA as well as those nation states that have been championing an ICAO solution must now follow through. The associations have done a good job of keeping this topic at the forefront, spelling out the flaws of ETS, and speaking with one voice. In this next stage, they had better be prepared to ensure the full support and consensus of their member airlines, and to demonstrate that they are, indeed, ready to pay to be good, green citizens of this Earth, providing the solution is fair and global.

Hedegaard says the clock has stopped. But no one should doubt that she means it when she also says it restarts automatically and from where it left off if ICAO action is not forthcoming.

In that respect, the clock is still ticking and Hedegaard’s message is clear: Show us you mean it, or else.
ATW, December 1, 2012