Airbus’ hold on EU aviation policy exposed

Just released emails between Airbus and the European Commission expose the extent of the company’s hold on EU aviation policy. The aeronautics giant was given special privileges in determining essential aspects of the EU’s position when drafting climate rules for new aircraft at the UN aviation body, ICAO.

The emails between the Transport Directorate of the Commission (known as DG MOVE) and Airbus show the Commission allowed the company to directly amend the EU’s negotiating position for ICAO – even though Airbus is a major aviation player to be regulated by the rules under negotiation. The correspondence was obtained by T&E via an access to documents request, after Airbus and ICAO opposed the public disclosure of the emails. The documents were finally released after an 18-month appeal process.

In one email Airbus accepted the track changes made by the Commission while proposing ‘final comments’. These changes were made, the email states, after checking with Germany and Spain, which are regarded – along with France – as the ‘Airbus nations’ due to national stakes in the company and the employment that it provides nationally. Another email also shows that Airbus explicitly requested confirmation that the EU would ‘respect those red lines’.

The result is a global aircraft standard which will do nothing to cut the sector’s soaring emissions. The standard was agreed in 2016 behind closed doors at ICAO. At the time T&E said the measure was completely ineffective and essentially the result of negotiations between the US, the EU and the Boeing/Airbus duopoly. Now the emails show the extent to which that regulatory process was steeped in secrecy and corporate interests, entirely removed from the normal European democratic process.

T&E’s aviation manager Andrew Murphy said: ‘Now we know: when it comes to the climate, Europe lets Airbus write its own rules. The result of this direct interference in lawmaking is a standard tailored to Airbus’ needs, with climate and public health the losers.’

The EU’s willingness to go beyond such environmental standards set down by ICAO is currently at issue in talks between the European Parliament and EU governments. MEPs want the the EU aviation agency EASA, which currently adopts aircraft environmental standards into law in Europe, to be able to make more stringent rules for aircraft in EU airspace instead of simply copy and pasting ICAO rules into EU law. No other state in the world restricts their own sovereignty in such way.

But national governments don’t want to give the EU the power to adopt standards that go beyond ICAO‘s lowest common denominator requirements – rules on CO2 emissions but also noise, NOx, PM and potentially the sonic boom of supersonic jets. Both the Parliament and the European Council will eventually have to vote on any deal between the two that emerges.

Andrew Murphy added: ‘These emails and the latest EASA episode show there is a clear need to reform the way decisions are taken in Europe regarding aircraft environmental regulations. The Commission must act in an independent and transparent manner giving proper weight to environmental and climate considerations. Parliament must insist that European rules are decided in Europe through full parliamentary scrutiny and that officials in member states and the Commission act with complete transparency and independence. Without this, industry will continue to write its own rules and aviation emissions will continue to soar.’

Meanwhile, the European Commission and EU member states have controversially agreed to almost entirely remove sustainability criteria for bio jet fuel. They acquiesced to other ICAO member countries to trash 10 sustainability points out of 12, originally agreed by ICAO’s environment committee, which will mean that highly unsustainable biofuels would qualify for the aviation’s global carbon offsetting scheme dubbed CORSIA.

The sustainability rules also have implications beyond CORSIA because they will become the de facto global standard for biofuel use in the aviation sector. The EU and other ICAO countries removed sustainability safeguards such as rules on land rights, food security, labour rights and biodiversity protection. The only rules to survive are a -10% greenhouse gas reduction target for biofuels compared to regular jet fuel and a ban on crops grown on land that was deforested after 2009. T&E said removing the safeguards pitches one UN agency against the globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals adopted by 193 states.

T&E’s analysis and climate manager, Carlos Calvo Ambel, said: ‘Commissioner Bulc has professed her support for advanced and sustainable bio jet fuel as key to decarbonising aviation. However, when it came to defending sustainability criteria for aviation biofuels at ICAO, the Europeans were quick to cave in to Brazil, rendering the global rules largely meaningless. This whole episode provides yet another warning that ICAO’s flagship initiative to decarbonise aviation, CORSIA, risks becoming a complete shambles.’