US carriers aren't keen on any market-based effort to curb carbon emissions until the decade's end. Photo: Getty Images
A US 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.
A high-level group of negotiators is trying to develop a global plan to address aviation emissions and will meet again next month in talks sponsored by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), a United Nations body.
In 2012 the advent of an EU law requiring all aircraft using EU airports to pay for their carbon emissions via the bloc's Emissions Trading Scheme stirred threats of a global trade war. The United States, China, India and Russia all lobbied fiercely against it.
Eventually, EU Climate Chief Connie Hedegaard said the EU would freeze its law for a year to give U.N. negotiators the chance to agree an alternative global plan.
Shortly afterwards, Hedegaard said President Barack Obama needed to address global environmental efforts. Obama's appointment as Secretary of State of Senator John Kerry, a long-time champion of action on climate change, raised EU hopes.
When in the Senate, Kerry voted for a bill that would bar US airlines from complying with the EU emissions trading system but insisted that it also require ICAO to come up with an alternative solution.
To try to accelerate efforts, ICAO set up the high-level group of negotiators, which includes State Department climate envoy Todd Stern and the European Commission's director general for climate action, Jos Delbeke. That group has held two meetings and will meet again at the end of March.
"The work in the high level group has not yielded extremely rapid and concrete progress," a source close to the US State Department said on condition of anonymity.
Those on the US side of the panel have presented a position paper that focuses on an airspace approach to regulating emissions. Nearly half of all airspace is over international waters.
Keya Chatterjee, international climate policy director of conservation group WWF in Washington, said the US proposal constituted a message to the European Union that US airlines would not pay for anything they emit outside of national borders.
"I see the airspace approach as a way of bullying the EU into backing down," she said.
The argument over how to deal with airline emissions has raged for well over a decade and the European Union only agreed to make its law extend to all aircraft using its airports because of what it saw as the failure of international talks.
When Hedegaard announced the EU would freeze the law, she gave ICAO until the body's next general assembly, expected to begin in September to deliver a global emissions framework. If not, the EU would reapply the law to all airlines.
Internal EU flights are still required to submit carbon certificates to cover their emissions even though intercontinental flights have been excluded for now, provided the Commission's proposed freeze is finally endorsed. The European Parliament is expected to back it in April.
Airlines for America (A4A), the US airlines lobby, continues to campaign against any market-based mechanism, such as a carbon market, for the rest of the decade, preferring an approach which focuses on improving "technology, operations and infrastructure".
"From 2021, a market-based measure can be a gap-filler implemented by the country of registry where every country will implement this consistently - that is what we are working toward," said Nancy Young, vice president for environmental affairs at A4A.