The clock has stopped: where is ICAO now?

Following the European Parliament’s vote approving the Commission’s proposal to “Stop the Clock”, Conservative MEP Peter Liese, aviation EU ETS and “Stop the Clock” Rapporteur, hosted a public briefing for MEPs in Brussels on Wednesday 24th April to review progress of the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) High Level Group on Climate Change (HGCC) formation, of which had prompted Europe’s stop the clock decision. The conference was attended by Jos Delbeke, Director–General DG Clima, Prof David Lee of Manchester University, IATA’s Paul Steele and Green MEP Satu Hassi. The derogation became European law on 25 April. Here’s our report of what was said there.

Both Liese and Satu Hassi showed disappointment at the little progress of the HGCC, as evidenced by continuing differences both on the need for a global market-based mechanism (MBM) to address international aviation emissions and for a Framework to govern national/regional schemes such as the EU ETS (see ICAO update box made available at the meeting and downloadable at the bottom of this article). Unless things changed and ICAO made rapid progress leading to a constructive agreement on both these issues at its forthcoming triennial Assembly, then the original aviation Directive would “snap back” automatically next January. The Directive wouldn’t be amended “because of pressure from China, the US or Airbus”.

Liese criticised IATA and industry’s stance. He said: "If industry really wants a global aviation deal they need to lobby for it, not against it". He appealed directly to US Secretary of State John Kerry to follow through on Obama’s second inaugural commitment to take action on climate change noting that, after all, the Kerry-Liebermann, and indeed later Waxman-Markey bill, would have regulated the CO2 emissions of all international flights from the United States had it not been blocked in the U.S. Senate.

Jos Delbeke outlined Europe’s three requirements in the negotiations, namely: agreement on a Framework; agreement on a global MBM; and a strengthening of technical and operational measures. He argued that the “departing flights from a State” approach, which was Europe’s position, was the only environmentally effective and/or administratively possible way of regulating international flights irrespective of the nationality of carrier. Airspace (i.e. regulating CO2 emissions of arriving or departing flights only within a State’s sovereign airspace) was extremely difficult to implement and industry should be worried by it. Delbeke added that as not all States were ready, Europe had made the roadmap proposal to the HGCC. Where, however, was industry on the roadmap? He called on industry to reveal their proposal for a solution, as Europe was open to considering all options. ICAO’s aspirational goals needed to be more mandatory, the requirement and content of State Action Plans strengthened as the quality was variable, and work accelerated on the CO2 standard for new aircraft. In sum, Delbeke stated that Europe had shown its willingness by suspending co-decision legislation in record time but there was a limit to how far Europe will go. “We were in negotiation but without progress in ICAO the EU ETS will return in full”, Delbeke concluded.

Prof David Lee, leading climate scientist and an independent scientific adviser to ICAO, gave a thorough presentation on the possible pathways for aviation emissions growth to 2050. The various forecasts for reducing emissions (technology and operational measures, biofuels and regional MBMs) showed that there would still be a significant gap left between estimated aviation emissions and industry’s own 2020 carbon neutral growth goal, as well as ICAO’s 2% efficiency goal and the 2-degree target. Indeed it was shown clearly that without the EU ETS, there was little if no possibility of aviation being carbon neutral from 2020 let alone in 2050. Lee lamented the fact that ICAO does not afford more public access to all this important data. Lee added: “Why most final reports and supporting documentation of ICAO Working Groups are 'secret', when they are largely public and stakeholder funded and contain no proprietary or confidential data, mystifies me. I have ensured transparency of my group’s final products and the authors retaining intellectual property rights”.

Prof David Lee also outlined the options for geographic scope of any Framework measure. Using “airspace” approach would only cover up to 22% of worldwide emissions (and only if every country acted). In the example of the EU ETS airspace would cover only about a third of the original scheme. The departing flights or Flight Information Regions (FIRs) options could cover 100%. However, FIRs would incur significant administrative difficulties while a key issue remains: 77 countries have no FIR at all.

Paul Steele, recently promoted to Senior Vice President of Member and External Relations at industry body IATA, complained that governments around the world were already taking US$7bn annually from airlines as “environmental” measures. Thus, he argued, IATA was keen on ICAO agreeing a global deal on MBMs (although only as a gap filler in the medium term) while acknowledging the road was tough. Mr Steele called for MBMs that fulfil three main criteria: reduce emissions, minimise competitive distortions and be administratively simple. He was concerned about the ICAO work on an MBM Framework as the danger was that efforts would stop there.

At the same time, Steele had few comforting words for Europe about it: geographical scope “was perhaps the most difficult question”; the airspace, which the US is pushing, and over-flight approaches were both potential “nightmares” for market distortion and carbon leakage. Both were the “wrong building blocks” to a global approach while the suggestion of using FIRs was a “non-starter”. He didn’t talk further about the existing departing flights approach. Steele also cautioned against expecting any “Eureka moment” at ICAO’s Assembly in October. While he warned against reverting to the situation prior to last November, he emphasised the fact that there would be “huge problems” if the EU ETS “snapped back”. Steele concluded by suggesting that offsetting was the right approach and that it could eventually morph into emissions trading if that was wanted.

Green MEP Satu Hassi expressed opposition to the airspace approach. For Hassi, it was total emissions that mattered and IATA should be lobbying governments to agree a global deal.

During questions, Green MEP Eva Lichtenberg, said members of her European Parliament’s Transport Committee all supported a global approach, adding that everyone knew who was blocking it. Responding to a question, Peter Liese said that the concept of “mutual agreement” being required under a global agreement was “crazy” and later described the US position on airspace as “nonsense”. For Liese, the EU and the U.S. needed to cooperate on the basis of outbound flights. Paul Steele reckoned that reducing aviation demand was very difficult. Jos Delbeke concluded that the whole issue was a wake-up call for ICAO. Delbeke insisted that if the whole problem couldn’t be solved now it couldn’t be solved later and, consequently, the credibility of ICAO’s global goals was squarely on the table.

Derogating from EU law was no small matter but a serious signal that was not open-ended.