We need to call time on “stop the clock”: why the EU must take action on aviation emissions - Jakop Dalunde

The European Parliament is about to vote on a crucial piece of its environmental legislation - the aviation part of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. Until now, international aviation has largely been let off the hook and it’s vital that progress is made to curb its emissions. Green MEP Jakop Dalunde explains the story until now, and puts forward our demands.

In 2008, the European Union decided that emissions from flights would be covered in its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). This would apply from 2012 and include:

1. Flights between airports within the EU,

2. Flights between EU airports and airports in non-EU countries.

This  decision  faced massive resistance, partly from the aviation sector and partly from countries outside the EU. The EU therefore decided to adopt an exemption for flights to and from non-EU countries that is known as "Stop the clock". The exemption was meant to be valid until 2016, to give time to the ICAO, the United Nations Civil Aviation Organization, to reach  a global agreement.

By the end of 2016, an agreement was reached within the ICAO on a global system for stabilizing emissions from the aviation sector (known as CORSIA). The system shall be binding from 2021.

The agreement requires airlines to monitor and report their CO2 emissions from international flights and compensate emissions that exceed 2020 levels by purchasing units in climate-related projects, such as projects in renewable energy. However, due to various exceptions, the system is believed to only cover some parts of the sector’s global emissions. 

The ICAO agreement represents some progress and is obviously better than nothing but is still far from being sufficient. Emissions must actually decrease and it is not enough to simply compensate the sector’s emissions by reducing those of others.

Another key aspect to take into account is that an airplane also has other damaging non-carbon dioxide-related impacts on climate, especially at high altitudes. This is due to the emissions of nitrogen oxides, soot and water vapor, which means that the airplane’s impact is actually two to four times more damaging than if only carbon dioxide was involved. A recent report from the European Commission notes that 85% of the climate compensation projects used in the EU under the UN Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) did not contribute to reducing emissions.

What remains to be done in the UN process is to develop rules for the implementation of the global market-based operation. Negotiations on this are still ongoing and are expected to be adopted in 2018. Open negotiations that ensure reporting and rules become clear and accessible to all parties will be key to ensuring credibility and accountability.

Given that the time of the exemption has now expired, the question whether international flights should be covered by the EU’s Emission Trading Scheme is up for decision again. The Commission proposes to extend the exemption for flights to / from non-EU countries and that this decision is taken when the EU ETS will be next reviewed after 2020, once the ICAO rules for implementing the global system become clearer. The proposal is now being discussed by the European Parliament, where the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy has issued its opinion.

The main issues in the EU Parliament are essentially whether there should be a deadline for the exemption or not (with the EU Commission proposal not suggesting any), how the allocation of allowances should be dealt with (should there be auctioning or should the sector receive free allocation?), whether the emission ceiling should be reduced step by step through the so-called linear reduction factor (applicable to other emissions from other sectors within the ETS and not amended in the Commission proposal) and the coexistence of both systems of the ETS and CORSIA.

The conservatives want the air sector that is currently partially regulated by the EU ETS to be completely covered by CORSIA, including flights within the EU. This in my view would represent a big step back. Despite the fact that the EU ETS could be improved in many aspects, this system is still a far more ambitious tool than CORSIA! If the conservatives manage to get what they want in the European Parliament, this would means that the air sector demand for emission allowances would be drastically reduced and that a major buyer of allowances would disappear from the emissions trading system.

This would probably seriously impact the already extremely low price of allowances, which is too currently far too small to be able to really drive innovation forward.

The final vote from the European Parliament on this file is to take place today. It will then be followed by negotiations with the Council to try and reach an agreement by the end of the year.

Our green demands:

·        If the exemption for international flights is extended, it is not reasonable that it will last forever - there must be a deadline, preferably when CORSIA enters into force in 2021. However, in order to put pressure on ICAO, the EU Emissions Trading System should apply from 2017 to 50% for flights between the EU and third countries.

·        The aircraft sector should take responsibility for its emissions and reduce them just like other sectors.

·        Free allocation is used during a transitional period to allow a sector to adapt and only for sectors with a high risk of carbon leakage - this is not the case for the aviation sector. In order for the market system to have the intended effect, which is to reduce emissions, price mechanisms must work! The transition period has now ended, and emission rights for the air sector should therefore be auctioned.

·        We want to implement CORSIA within the framework of the EU ETS rather than creating a parallel system that regulates the sector. The ETS can and should be the EU's tool for fulfilling our part of CORSIA.

On 11th July in the Committee on the Environment, the progressive line largely won and called for a step-by-step reduction of air emissions ceiling, a higher proportion of auctioned emission rights, and the ending date for exemption. By March 2020, the Commission is to come up with an evaluation of the ICAO negotiations and the rules, including an in-depth analysis of the appropriateness and ambition of the measures to achieve the objectives set in the Paris Agreement.

However, even if the Committee of the Environments quite progressive position gets through, it’s still clearly not enough. The Green group has worked hard to try and ensure that a proposal as ambitious as possible is adopted in plenary today. And if the progressive line of the Committee on the Environment is actually maintained, the fight for ensuring that this sector really does play it fair part will continue.



Read more about the Greens position on ICAO, flights and EU ETS and listen to our podcast for more information