How VdL can turn a new page in fighting airline and shipping emissions

Ursula Von der Leyen, Europe’s new supremo, certainly did not miss her entrée. Since her investiture over the summer Brussels is buzzing with energy and renewed enthusiasm about European leadership on climate and environmental protection.

Not only did she announce a European Green Deal, but she also put Frans Timmermans, a heavyweight in the previous Commission, in charge of delivering it. Timmermans promptly appointed Diederik Samsom, the architect of the recent Dutch climate deal, as his chief of staff. 

In the field of transport Von der Leyen rightly identified aviation and shipping as top priorities. This is good news. The previous Commission’s green aviation and shipping policy was to hope that ICAO and IMO, two of the most hapless UN agencies, were solving the problem. But now that hundreds of thousands are marching in the streets, and media are starting to discover what ICAO and IMO are really doing, or rather not doing, that game is up.

Or is it not? As I write this op-ed ICAO is holding its triennial assembly. Half a million people have been protesting outside its headquarters in Montreal and for a moment ICAO appeared open to meeting with Greta Thunberg. But the protests apparently made little impression on the assembly members because there has been no progress on anything environment related. In fact we’ve gone backwards: the one significant new development is a resolution proposed by ICAO’s council making Corsia – ICAO’s laughably weak answer to the climate emergency – the world’s sole instrument regulating international aviation emissions. The exclusivity resolution explicitly attacks so-called regional measures, of which the EU emissions trading system (ETS) is the prime example.

So you would expect the European states assembled at ICAO to try and stop this resolution. Or to at least make it clear they disagree. But no, the Europeans – be it the Commission, or representatives from so-called climate leaders such as France, Germany or the Netherlands – have, at time of print, yet to speak up to defend Europe’s right to regulate and they may let that resolution sail through unchallenged.

How is that possible?

ICAO is the UN aviation agency and states are represented by their aviation authorities. Often these sit within, or are associated with the national transport ministers. Just like ICAO itself, transport ministries, see it as their job to promote the “safe and orderly” development and expansion of aviation. So environmental rules are always compared against that higher objective: is this going to hinder the unbridled expansion of aviation? It is hardly surprising then that measures to price aviation, and indirectly make kerosene a little more expensive, are usually viewed with hostility. 

And as long as such agreements require the consent of all the ICAO members (including the least ambitious states – the US, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) the chance of anything meaningful happening is limited. This is exactly why ICAO – and its transport ministry members – hate it when anyone acts outside of ICAO. This is exactly why they hate the ETS. It’s a measure that treats aviation like any other sector, and it’s a policy that wasn’t decided behind closed doors like so many decisions in ICAO. For years now ICAO and its acolytes have been trying to weaken and remove the ETS. The situation is identical on the shipping and IMO side, too.

This is why we were somewhat surprised that Ursula von der Leyen’s mission letter to the now rejected transport commissioner designate Rovana Plumb seemed to put Romania’s nominee in charge of delivering the inclusion of shipping and aviation into the EU ETS.

There is absolutely no doubt that the transport commissioner needs to be involved in efforts to regulate shipping and aviation. But delivering successful policies in fields as difficult as shipping and aviation requires not just the right expertise, but also a genuine and institutional commitment to the desired outcomes and instruments. If the assembled EU and national transport officials won’t even speak up to defend the already existing ETS in Montreal, how are they supposed to successfully oversee the strengthening and expansion of the system when they return to Brussels and their capitals? 

It is still early days and the candidate transport commissioner has just been rejected by parliament. Mr Timmermans himself will be heard by parliament next week. That leaves ample time for von der Leyen and her executive vice president, who will also be climate commissioner and transport decarbonisation lead, to clarify the issue.

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About the author

William Todts's picture

Executive Director