What next for EU climate diplomacy after aviation compromise?

Historic leaders at UN climate talks face tough questions after high-profile crash at ICAO summit in Montreal

Connie Hedegaard, EU Climate Commissioner (Pic: Johannes Jansson)

By Sophie Yeo

When the EU established a regional trading scheme for the aviation industry in 2012, it was a brave political decision.

For this trading scheme, the EU decided to regulate the emissions of all flights that either departed from or arrived at a European airport. It was the first, and it remains the only, regional trading scheme that has been set up to regulate the carbon emissions from aviation, and it helped the EU to stake out its position as an environmental leader.

The best testimony to the ambition of the scheme is probably the backlash that it faced. Other states from outside the EU objected to the notion that the EU could regulate the emissions from their aircrafts over their own airspace, regarding it as a threat to their sovereignty.

So in November, the EU ‘stopped the clock’ for one year on its ETS, on the condition that in this period the world would work together, within the UN’s aviation body ICAO, to develop a global market based mechanism to regulate the emissions from all flights.

These negotiations have reached fever pitch in the last month, as countries gathered in Montreal to discuss how exactly this global MBM could be introduced. It was not a new point of discussion.

The UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has been skirting around the issue of how to reduce the emissions from the industry since the Kyoto Protocol handed over responsibility for the sector in 1997 – but this time the added pressure from the EU meant that hopes were high.

EU takes a beating

The first blow for the EU came at the beginning of September, when the EU agreed to reduce the emissions covered by its emissions trading scheme to those within its own airspace, covering only a fraction of the pollution that it would have done before.

But after the final meetings on Friday, the EU has been left even more battered and bruised, having been cornered into agreeing to a regional scheme that includes only flights that both depart and land within the EU, and may only regulate the emissions from those that enter from outside the EU with the “mutual agreement” of the other state.

In exchange, ICAO has agreed to develop a global MBM by the next General Assembly of ICAO in 2016, with the intention of implementing it by 2020.

For some, this outcome represents a humiliating retreat, with the EU negotiators being forced to crawl back to Brussels on their knees licking their wounds, having compromised on their position without achieving much in return from ICAO.

Bill Hemmings, from Transport and Environment, said, “Europe’s ETS, the only international measure that actually reduces emissions from international aviation, has been hamstrung by ICAO delegates more interested in evading responsibility than protecting the environment.

“In exchange for the halting of the only real and effective system, they propose to ‘agree to agree on something in 2016’. The Assembly’s resolution text looks like a Swiss cheese – full of holes; exactly the patchwork it was supposed to avoid.”

Pyrrhic victory?

But the statement that emerged from the EU on the final resolution was far more positive, suggesting they considered the final resolution to be something of a victory.

Connie Hedegaard, Commissioner for Climate Action in the EU, said: “The EU’s hard work has paid off. After so many years of talks, ICAO has finally agreed to the first-ever global deal to curb aviation emissions.

“If it hadn’t been for the EU’s hard work and determination, we wouldn’t have got this decision today to create a global market-based measure. What matters to us is that the aviation sector also contributes to our efforts to reduce emissions.

“While we would have liked more countries to accept our regional scheme, progress was made overall and we will now factor this in when, together with the member states and the European Parliament, we decide on the way forward with the EU ETS.”

It may appear that the EU is putting on a brave face, but there are also others outside of the EU inner circle for whom the outcome doesn’t represent the tragic fall of the hero of environmental leadership that some have perceived.

Legal framework

The fact that Hedegaard can say that the EU is still considering the way forward with the EU ETS highlights an important aspect of the outcome: despite the fanfare surrounding it, ICAO does not have the final say when it comes to regulating the aviation industry.

While the final ICAO document is an important statement on the positions of the countries involved, it is not legally binding, but rather represents a political agreement. And the process hasn’t ended for the EU just because they’ve left the Montreal negotiations. The new proposals will have to get the agreement of the European Parliament and the Commission before the EU law can be amended.

Legal authority in the aviation industry is still derived from the 1944 Chicago Convention, which sets out the principle that each country has sovereignty over its own airspace, which means that legally the EU is not bound to getting “mutual agreement” if it wants to regulate the emissions above its land.

EU Parliament

Tim Johnson from Aviation Environment Federation told RTCC that he expects the European Parliament to start nursing the ETS back to health in some way when any amendments are taken before it.

He says: “ICAO is one audience but they’ve still got to go back to Parliament and get the agreement to change, and I think the parliament will demand that sort of approach. I’d expect them to do so: they need it to maintain that leverage.

“We don’t want another three years of talks with no outcome in 2016. The global has to be a preferable alternative to what Europe’s doing, so we don’t want too much given away too soon.”

He added that other states, particularly the US, might be more willing to broker a deal with the EU, particularly since denying a state the right to maintain sovereignty over its own airspace could be setting a dangerous precedent that many would not consider worthwhile, considering that this is a principle that applies not just to emissions, but also to navigation and security.

He also dismissed the idea that Europe’s environmental leadership was weakened by the outcome.

“They’d gone in there willing to negotiate and be flexible, so the fact that they didn’t get what they wanted, I don’t think it should be seen as though their credibility has been diminished in any way,” he says.

“I think they are still pioneers that are looking to take the rest of the world with them. I think if they can maintain that then they’re still in a good position for the climate talks generally. There are options and this isn’t quite the end of the story yet.”

Jean Leston, transport and policy manager at WWF-UK, added in an interview with RTCC last week that the EU could continue to play a pivotal role going forwards as the world attempts to figure out exactly how to develop this global market based mechanism (MBM).

“We’ve seen the environmental leader brought down by the pack, but I think once the dust has settled the EU still has a lot to offer in international negotiations,” she said.

“This is the only system that’s up and running, and proves that cap-and-trade can work. In the next three years there’s going to be a lot of work to design and develop an MBM and the EU experience is going to be vital in helping to deliver that.”

Long term game

But is the global deal that is on the table robust enough to make the EU’s compromise worthwhile? Liz Gallagher, Senior Policy Advisor at E3G, thinks so.

She told RTCC, “I think if you think about how Europe has manoeuvred on this one, it’s not always the initial short term impacts. It’s actually the long game that they seem to be playing, and what they’ve got is a global agreement to develop an MBM, which is what they wanted.”

Acknowledging that the current deal has been accused of being weak and patchy, she highlights that, when the deal takes place in 2016, the world will be working in a different political space, influenced by what she hopes will be a raising of ambition as a result of the 2015 UN climate negotiations in Paris, where many hope a legally binding agreement will be achieved.

She says, “At the moment, we’re operating in a space which has very limited political energy and ambition in it, so what we got was the best outcome at ICAO given the current political energy and mandates on the ground.

“What we’ll see over the next two years in the ramp up to the 2015 climate agreement, there’ll be a lot more commitment injected into the discussions and international debate and that will hopefully culminate in the 2015 agreement, which will then send really strong signals out to ICAO to say, ‘Oi, get your act together.’

“Although at the moment it seems a bit vague, actually what that will result in is more ambition in the end and some kind of outcome so we can get a global MBM.”

That analysis will be music to the ears of EU climate chief Connie Hedegaard, whose attention is now turning east to Warsaw, where the framework of that 2015 deal is set to be thrashed out in little over a month’s time.

The EU is a major player at these talks. Small island states and the Least Developed Countries bloc are relying on Hedegaard and her team to cajole the USA, China, Brazil, India and Russia to discuss critical greenhouse gas cuts.

And for Gallagher it’s important that the initial ambition of the EU at ICAO shouldn’t be lost in all the political noise that has taken place over the last week, some of it very emotive.

“Europe has been on the forefront in terms of climate action, particularly across the developed world, and being a leader means you don’t always get everything you want or put on the table,” she says.

“Leadership is a risky business and they have taken a risk, and I think it will pay off in the longer term.”

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