The Multilateralist

Did the EU get rolled on airline emissions?

Did the EU get rolled on airline emissions?

For the last several years, the European Union’s plan to tax the emissions of foreign airlines flying into or departing from EU airspace has been a sore spot with the United States, China, India, and other major powers. At certain points, it appeared that the dispute might end up in litigation at the World Trade Organization. In the U.S., both the Senate and House approved measures encouraging U.S. airlines not to comply with the EU scheme.

Under intense pressure, Brussels agreed to delay implementation of the proposed tax. The EU’s executive arm, the Commission, has already endorsed what is referred to as a "stop the clock" approach. Now, the European Parliament is getting its say. Earlier this week, a key parliamentary committee approved the delay, and the full parliament appears likely to concur in April. 

Europe did extract from key players a committment to engage in negotiations on an international aviation emissions regime. These talks will occur under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). An important negotiating session is scheduled for mid-March, and Reuters already has its hands on the initial U.S. negotiating position. It doesn’t look likely to please Brussels:

A U.S. proposal for curbing aircraft emissions would exclude time spent flying over international waters, an approach that some environmental groups say is too timid in addressing the rise in greenhouse gasses from the aviation sector.

The proposal, seen by Reuters, would cover just a quarter of aviation emissions, according to some estimates, and is in sharp contrast to a European Union law that would require all airlines to pay a carbon fee for the entire flight if departing or arriving at EU airports.

In theory, the lingering threat that the EU will reactivate its emissions plan should spur negotiations; the parliamentary committee that approved the delay promised to reinstate the tax if the ICAO negotiations don’t make "clear and sufficient" progress. But once talks are underway, it will be awfully tough for the EU to pull the plug. Washington, Beijing, Moscow, and Delhi may have succeeded in blunting Europe’s emissions threat with a very European tactic: burying a contentious issue in endless multilateral negotiations.