EU flies solo to reduce aviation emissions

BRUSSELS- The European Union’s controversial inclusion of international airlines in its emissions trading system (ETS) has received heated criticism. Political pressure continues to mount on the EU as the start date of aviations inclusion in the ETS fast approaches.

By Stephanie Bishop-Hall

Sitting in the gate lounge at an airport somewhere you stare blankly at the generic carpet made of geometrical shapes in bright and inoffensive colours. Around you people move with purpose, collecting bags or loved ones, talking loudly on the phone, looking tired or stressed. Now and then a voice stutters over the loud speaker, almost indistinguishable from the vacant sounds of movement that surround you.

When asked by the uniformed flight attendant to show your ticket, you remember how cheap it was: a discount ticket, half the normal price. No need to feel guilty about this trip. What you did not consider was the environmental impact of your cheap ticket and the aviation industry as a whole.

“Basically right now, buying a cheap ticket is one of the most environmentally damaging consumer products,” says Dudley Curtis, communications manager at Transport and Environment, a non-governmental organisation working from inside Brussels.

“Aviation is ten-times more polluting than road traffic but has none of the same regulations. It’s a sector that doesn’t even run on the same standards as every other industry,” Mr Curtis adds.

A model aeroplane soars below its shadow.


In the beginning

Following the creation of the Kyoto Protocol to tackle climate change in 1997 the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), a specialised agency of the United Nations, was tasked to work with developed nations to reduce aviation emissions. Fourteen years later, the organisation has not decided on a binding global measure to reduce the industry’s emissions.

In 2005, the European Union (EU) concluded that bringing aviation into the EU ETS would be the most cost-efficient and environmentally effective option for controlling aviation emissions. The proposal took eighteen months to be adopted and the ‘Aviation Directive’ became EU legislation.

How the ETS works:

From the 1st January 2012 all airlines flying to and from the EU will be required to monitor and report their emissions to the member state that issued their license. Under the EU ETS airlines will be given 85 percent of their emissions for free, and will have to trade or buy the remaining 15 percent at auction.


In protest over the legislation, the Air Transport Association of America, American and United Continental Airlines took their case to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

In October this year Juliane Kokott, Advocate General of the ECJ, expressed a preliminary opinion that the EU’s inclusion of international aviation in its ETS was compatible with international law. This opinion is not binding and the courts decision is expected early next year.


Stationary model aeroplanes fly in front of the European Parliament buildings.


ICAO and the Chicago Convention

“The EU has no right to charge third countries,” says Jacqueline Foster, a British Conservative Member of the European Parliament and spokesperson for the Committee on Transport and Tourism.

The main basis for a legal argument against the inclusion of aviation in the EU ETS is a breach of the Chicago Convention, in which the purpose of ICAO is set forth. The argument lies in the description of ‘sovereignty’. Those bringing the case against the EU argue that forcing them to partake in the ETS impinges on their sovereignty as it is unilateral and they have not agreed to it.

The European Commission maintains that the legislation is not extra-territorial and does not hinder states from acting on their own territory. The Commission reiterates that within the ETS legislation there is a provision that exempts airlines from countries taking equivalent steps to cut emissions from aviation.

Mrs Foster expressed her belief that the EU is breaking the Chicago Convention. “It was decided without proper discussion with third countries,” she states.

On November 2nd of this year, under pressure from twenty-six nations including the US and China, ICAO agreed to adopt a non-binding working paper urging the EU to refrain from including flights by non-EU carriers in its ETS.

“ICAO has basically been a useless organisation when it comes to aviation environmental impacts. It [the working paper] is just a continuation of the unproductive nature of the industry,” comments Mr Curtis.

Tax revenue vs. the environment

There have been claims from within the EU that the measure is primarily a way to raise tax revenue.

“It’s not about the environment, the focus is on tax revenue,” Mrs Foster states emphatically.

Brian Simpson, Chairman of the European Parliament’s Committee on Transport and Tourism was quoted at the 55th annual meeting of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines as saying:

“…Within the EU, governments are keen to press ahead because they desperately need the money. They won’t say that—oh no—they will claim it’s to help the environment, just as they do with Air Passenger Duty. But let’s be under no illusions here—both ETS and APD are being used as revenue streams for hard-up governments and not for environmental protection measures.”

A source from within the European Commission denies this claim, arguing that if the inclusion was in fact aimed at tax revenue the airlines would have to buy 100 percent of their allowances at auction.

A political struggle

“This a political fight more than it is a legal fight and it’s really about whether America wants to turn this into a major international dispute,” Mr Curtis says.
Earlier this year, an anti-EU bill was introduced into the US Congress which declares the EU aviation directive illegal and if passed by the Senate will prohibit any US airline from complying with the EU law. This would leave the airlines in an impossible situation where they will either break US or EU law.


The official stance of the European Commission on this possible development is one of no speculation.

Consumers will pay

The European Commission expects an increase in ticket prices as a result of the ETS. The Commission’s official figure is around a two euro increase on a transatlantic flight. It is understood that the Commission is not concerned about the effect the ETS could have on the tourism industry.

Jacqueline Foster disagrees: “the consumer will pay and it raises competition issues,” adding, “the EU is over-regulated and the end result will be on tourism industry.”

Flying into the future

Despite continued international pressure, the EU, led by Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard, remains firmly behind the legislation.

Commissioner Hedegaard expressed in a speech made on the 10th November at the European Parliament Transport Committee meeting, “…We as EU stand firm in respect of this non-discriminatory legislation and express that we have no intention of amending it.”


Links for further reading:

The Chicago Convention

Latest European Environment Agency report on Transport, ‘Laying the foundations for greener transport’

European Commission, Climate Action, Aviation Policy

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