EU Member States resist industry pressures to protect climate regulation

This week, European Member States agreed on a common position regarding the future implementation of the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) new carbon market, set to start operating in 2021. The creation of a new offsetting mechanism for aviation, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), was agreed as part of a deal struck in October 2016 aimed at tackling the growing problem of aviation emissions.

Today’s decision by European Member States shows that the EU is committed to finding effective measures to tackle the growing problem of aviation emissions, and is not ready to implement a scheme which might do nothing to solve the climate crisis. While agreeing on a strong global mechanism to curb emissions from the aviation sector would be a major victory for all stakeholders, promoting a global deal at any cost, regardless of its true impact on the climate, will do nothing to solve the current crisis.

While offsetting obligations are still a few years away for airlines, countries face a December 1st deadline to notify ICAO of any differences between their domestic policies and CORSIA (i.e. “file a difference”). Failing to notify such differences would open the door to the abolishment of existing regulations to be replaced with the global carbon market, of which the rules have not been clearly determined yet. EU Member States have therefore adopted a common position to file such difference in order to notify ICAO of the factual differences between European climate legislation covering aviation, and the proposed CORSIA.

A major difference between existing EU rules and the proposed ICAO scheme is the difference between the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS), which covers emissions from flights inside the European Economic Area, and CORSIA. Emissions Trading Systems and offsetting schemes function on a fundamentally different basis. Most importantly, the former sets an overall cap on emissions, which decreases over time, while the latter allows endless growth in emissions as long as these are “compensated”, often with credits which achieve few or no emission reductions. Yet despite the factual difference between EU and ICAO rules, the agreement among Member States on a common position has been subject to intense discussions over the past weeks, with airline industry groups fighting hard against such position from EU Member States, for example by sending a letter to the European Commission asking the EU not to notify ICAO of the differences between EU regulation and CORSIA.

Moreover, the ICAO negotiations process has been marred with an extreme lack of transparency, with media and civil society organizations being either kept in the dark about decisions taken or bound by confidentiality agreements that do not allow observers to speak publicly about developments on the CORSIA. This has been impacting both the effectiveness of the climate measure and more generally, the reputation of the UN agency which has been accused of being “captured by producer interests”. The 215th ICAO Council session ended on 16 November 2018. Given the lack of official communication made upon closure of the meeting, it is likely that key criteria to determine the environmental quality of the new climate measure have still not been agreed upon. Failing to “file a difference” would therefore lead to countries committing to implement a carbon market without knowing the main elements which will determine the impact it will have on the climate.

European Member States have stood firm on their ground to protect their right to enact effective climate measures. But the growing concerns about the lack of ambition from the aviation industry and the potential ineffectiveness of Corsia should send alarm bells ringing in all countries that are truly committed to solving the climate crisis. The EU is to provide an analysis of CORSIA at the latest 12 months after the adoption of the “implementation elements”, which include for example the rules on the eligibility of different types of carbon credits. This will inform the implementation of CORSIA into EU regulation, but given the lack of progress on these rules, it is unclear when such analysis will be carried out, or what climate impacts CORSIA will have.