Europe Offers U.S. a Deal, Hoping for Global Rules on Airline Emissions

Seeking to end years of acrimony, the European Union has made concessions to the United States to try to gain support for global rules on airline emissions.

Under the arrangement, the European Union would pare back its regulations, applying them only to its own airspace. The original plan, which the United States and other countries rejected, would have imposed charges for emissions over an airline’s entire route if the flight began or ended in Europe.

In exchange, Europe is pushing for a global deal on aviation emissions.

The European concessions — proposed quietly over the summer and made public this week — aim to end a trans-Atlantic dispute over a European law to curb emissions on major international routes. In doing so, the European Union is looking to present a united front with the Americans and press the rest of the world to adopt similar or more extensive controls.

“This is a multilateral negotiation where you give and take,” Isaac Valero-Ladrón, a spokesman for the European Commission, said in a statement. “We should not miss the bigger picture: a global deal means more emissions covered in the long term.”

The European law, which came into force on Jan. 1, 2012, covers emissions from most flights that touch down in, or take off from, European airports, obliging foreign airlines to buy some carbon permits from traders and governments. Airlines face fines of 100 euros, or $131, for each excess ton of carbon dioxide emissions that they fail to offset with permits. Repeated breaches can even lead to a ban from European airports.

So far, the rules have been applied only to flights within Europe, and European carriers and most non-European airlines have complied. The program is supposed to be expanded next year to include international flights in and out of Europe.

Despite the proposed concessions, a global deal is still a long shot. The United States and other countries have supported the arrangement, according to European Union diplomats. But emerging nations like China and India are resisting similar levels of regulation, which could make it difficult to develop global standards.

From the start, the aviation emissions law approved by European Union nations in 2008 has generated intense opposition among foreign governments, which say the rules violate their sovereignty and unfairly raise the costs of airlines from developing countries.

Carriers like China Eastern Airlines and Air India have refused to participate in the system, and they face the prospect of fines for not providing emissions data. Airbus, the European aircraft manufacturer, warned that Chinese carriers had halted some aircraft orders to signal their dissatisfaction with the European law.

Last year, President Obama signed the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme Prohibition Act. The law could exempt carriers like American Airlines and Delta Air Lines from making payments.

Amid the outcry, Connie Hedegaard, the European Union climate commissioner, announced late last year that she would “stop the clock” on the system for 12 months, relieving airlines of making the first payments, which would have been due in April 2013. Those payments were expected to be modest. But the airlines balked because they could face big bills in coming years as the number of permits they needed to buy potentially rose.

Now, the European Union is putting forth a compromise.

Under the compromise, countries could regulate, for now, “the portion of those flights within the airspace of that state or group of states,” according to a copy of a working paper. But the paper also calls for a global set of regulations by 2016, and for that system to be carried out “from 2020 as part of a basket of measures which also include technologies, operational improvements and sustainable alternative fuels.”

The State Department in the United States said Friday that earlier concerns that the Europeans were overreaching with their environmental regulations had been alleviated.

“We have been working hard to develop a basket of measures that all countries can adopt” later this month, the State Department said in a statement sent by e-mail. “In the interim, states and regions should refrain from regulating emissions beyond their own airspace,” it said.

On Wednesday, the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations group based in Montreal, agreed to forward the European compromise proposal to a meeting of its general assembly that will start this month. The group is examining ways to regulate pollution from aircraft engines, which account for about 3 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

European officials said paring back their system in exchange for a global deal would represent a better outcome. Under the new proposal, emissions would be reduced 37 percent by 2050 from 2005 levels, compared with just 20 percent under the original plan.

But some environmentalists said they had doubts about the value of the compromise.

“Timing is everything when it comes to global warming because of the cumulative effect of CO2 emissions,” said Bill Hemmings, an aviation expert at Transport and Environment, an environmental group based in Brussels. “So why would we give up on a law that is already cutting aviation emissions when it is very uncertain what the climate will get in return?”

Anthony Concil, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, an industry group representing the world’s major carriers, declined to comment on Europe’s new proposal. Instead, Mr. Concil encouraged nations at the International Civil Aviation Organization meeting to “achieve a global agreement” allowing airlines to offset their carbon emissions and avoid “a patchwork of uncoordinated measures.”
New York Times, September 13, 2013