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Obama’s first environmental test: EU aviation dispute

Joe Ravi, CC-BY-SA 3.0

The US Congress reconvened for an all-important lame-duck session on Tuesday, with just six short weeks to strike a difficult compromise that would prevent a budgetary catastrophe of its own making. But all in due time. First, House lawmakers immediately went about passing a bill that would seek to prevent US airlines from getting roped into Europe’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gases – this coming a day after the European Union temporarily backed off in a conditional “gesture of goodwill.”

At issue is the EU’s decision to fold aviation into its emissions trading system this year, as well as to extend the requirements to international carriers using European airports. The US airline industry argued that compliance will cost more than $3 billion, and Congress stepped up. Having already passed the Senate, the bill might well become the president’s first environmental test after the election; groups such as the Washington-based World Wildlife Fund are already pushing for a veto.

The administration has not taken a position, but regardless of Obama’s decision, the point is moot for now. The question is whether the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)  can build on last week’s apparently productive discussion regarding the development of a global mechanism for curbing aviation emissions. The organization has one year.

The fundamental issue is that emissions from aviation and shipping – powered by so-called “bunker fuels” – are not technically covered under the existing UN climate framework. The issue is widely discussed, often with regard to proposals to levy a some kind of international fee that could be used to fund climate mitigation and adapation. The emissions are also tracked and reported. But as yet countries have come to no agreement as to how or indeed where to handle the issue.

European Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard cited the ICAO’s progress in explaining the EU’s decision to give international carriers a reprieve on Monday. She also urged nations to take advantage of the opportunity, warning of a showdown to come if they fail to do so. “Let me be very clear: if this exercise does not deliver – and I hope it does – then needless to say we are back to where we are today,” Hedegaard said. “Automatically.”



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