Europe has three weeks to save its right to regulate emissions

Decarbonising the global economy requires all the world’s major economies to join forces and move in the same direction. That makes fighting climate change the largest cooperative effort humankind has ever embarked on and also explains why the Paris agreement was such an important achievement. But at the same time it is clear international agreements are only one part of the climate puzzle. And that’s actually a good thing.

As agreeing global measures is extremely hard, transformational action usually happens at national, regional or state level. See how California and China’s decisions to introduce ZEV mandates and Europe’s 95g CO2 target changed the auto-industry. Similarly the EU’s renewable energy targets and Germany’s Energiewende transformed the global market for solar and wind. So even though international agreements are essential, if the objective is transformational or technology-forcing change, the UN probably shouldn’t be your first and certainly not your only port of call.

There are two sectors where this logic does not seem to apply and where we allow opaque UN agencies to both set the global framework and determine the actions: shipping and aviation. While the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is lacklustre, if pressed it can be an effective environmental regulator – see for, example, the low-sulphur fuel rule. However, not much positive can be said about the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in the field of environment – though it does a good job on safety.

For decades, ICAO – which is heavily influenced by industry and operates in near complete secrecy – has done very little to act on aviation’s surging emissions. Worse, ICAO’s flagship climate measure, Corsia, risks being the end, not the start, of climate action in aviation around the world and for the EU ETS in particular. In the words of a senior Trump administration official:

“What’s critical for the United States to continue to engage on Corsia is not to see a proliferation of measures around the world. (...) Despite what has been agreed at ICAO, we see countries continuing to consider other measures, and that’s going to be a problem (...)”

So this is why Trump pulled out of Paris and wants to stay in Corsia: whereas Paris provides a floor from which states will take increasingly ambitious action; Corsia is currently used as a cap on ambition and, in particular, on EU action. In its likely form (the rules are still being finalised) Corsia is pretty meaningless in terms of environmental impact and, in the absence of China, Russia, India and many others, it isn’t actually global either. This is why airlines love Corsia.

ICAO has now issued a deadline to all states. By 1 December the EU needs to signal whether it will unconditionally sign up to Corsia. If we don’t notify ICAO of our intention to continue our own European legislation, the legal basis of, for example, the aviation ETS will be at great risk. Simply put, international ICAO law trumps EU law and if we don’t file a difference, airlines could claim the EU ETS is breaking international law. The aviation ETS isn’t perfect, but it’s worth fighting for. The allowance price is recovering (a tonne of CO2 now costs €18) and, as things stand, it’s the world’s most advanced climate scheme for aviation and an essential backbone for future European action on things like zero emission jet fuel.

It is essential for the EU to defend its recently reformed ETS as well as its right to regulate. All we need to do is respond to ICAO before 1 December. Filing a difference is a recognised part of ICAO rulemaking and basically means a country notifies the UN body that it has domestic rules that precede the new ICAO rule. To be clear, it doesn’t mean we won’t introduce Corsia – that decision can only be made when Corsia is finalised. All it would do is allow the EU to introduce Corsia in a way that is compatible with our current and future climate rules.

Filing a difference should be a no brainer. But airlines supported by their political alies are fighting tooth and nail to make sure the EU misses the deadline. This would allow them to challenge the ETS in court. The good news is that this week the European Commission finally produced a proposal to file a difference and protect the ETS. Member states have three weeks to approve it.

But it’s not a done deal yet. Airlines have shifted their attention to member states, and their lobbyists are now working the corridors of power in national capitals and Brussels – hoping the EU won’t get its act together before the deadline. An early sign of their strategy is a letter to T&E by Britain’s aviation minister in which Baroness Sugg announces she doesn’t want to file a difference. If Germany and France were to follow Brexit Britain’s example, we’d have a major problem.

We can’t allow that to happen. At stake here is not just good climate governance and whether we’ll have the tools to decarbonise aviation. At stake is also whether we’re going to allow Trump, ICAO and the airlines to dictate EU aviation policy, or whether we’re making our own decisions.

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About the author

William Todts's picture

Executive Director