U.N. aviation emissions deal in sight but possible hurdles loom

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 24, 2013 7:04 PM

By Valerie Volcovici

MONTREAL (Reuters) - United Nations aviation chiefs said Tuesday that thorny issues still loom heading into two weeks of negotiations aimed at finalizing a deal to address greenhouse gas emissions from the global aviation sector.

The U.N.'s International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets standards for air travel, is attempting to iron out one of the worst aviation disputes in years, which has pitted the European Union against its trade rivals.

Issues facing negotiators range from whether to exempt some developing countries from carbon fees to proposals for countries to charge international carriers for part of their flight's emissions.

The full ICAO membership meets once every three years. The current meeting will run through October 4.

Delegates got a prod on Tuesday from U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon, who delivered a recorded address to delegates in the opening plenary. Ban urged a strong deal from the aviation sector, whose emissions are expected to double by 2030 as flights from emerging economies increase.

The aviation sector needs to contribute to a wider United Nations climate change agreement that will be negotiated in 2015 in Paris, Ban said.

The president of the ICAO Council, the governing body of the U.N. agency, told reporters he is confident a deal can be reached among the assembly's nearly 200 member states, along a framework hammered out earlier this month for a market-based system that can reduce aviation emissions.

"We are expecting clear guidance from our member states on the path ahead and I am confident that is what they will deliver to us," said Roberto Kobeh Gonzalez, ICAO council president.

Beyond that, countries would "take a decision" at the 2016 assembly on the next steps, which could range from adopting a system to deciding to study the matter further. A market, if adopted, would begin in 2020. "We are in a much better position this time than three years ago," said Kobeh.

DOGGED BY DETAILS

Observers in Montreal said a few paragraphs within that proposal could complicate the path to a smooth agreement.

The airline industry and some member nations are concerned about a provision that would allow regional mechanisms, such as the EU's emissions trading scheme, to force global airlines to pay for their emissions on flights to European airports over EU airspace until a global market is in operation.

The provision was seen as a major concession by the EU, which earlier this year backed away from a law charging for emissions over international airspace. The EU faced intense pressure from countries like the United States and China and threats of a global carbon trade war.

The EU applied its emissions trading scheme to all airlines arriving and departing from Europe but "stopped the clock" on the law for one year, starting in April, in an attempt to jump-start a global emissions deal under ICAO.

There is also concern about a stipulation that certain developing countries can be exempted from market based measures "until a global scheme is decided."

'UNITED FRONT'

Siim Kallas, EU Commissioner for transport and vice-president of the European Commission, said a deal by all member states is in reach.

"We are very close to having a deal. It has been three years of talks and complicated negotiations but the main purpose is that there must not be a trade war," Kallas told Reuters on the sidelines of the assembly on Tuesday.

He said that although there has been disagreement over the degree of compromise the EU should concede, delegates intend to show unity. "Our people have worked closely together so now we don't have any split in our own house," he said.

Some members of European Parliament and environmental groups criticized the European Commission for showing its hand too soon in the long-running negotiations.

In a letter to ICAO Council President Roberto Kobeh Gonzalez, MEPs said that negotiations on a possible global market based mechanism must lead to "concrete measures" if the EU is to maintain its exemption for intercontinental flights.

"We cannot accept an ICAO resolution that would postpone action to 2020," said Matthias Groote, Environment Committee chairman in the European Parliament.

Bill Hemmings, sustainable aviation manager of green group Transport & Environment, said the commission has traded away its "bird in the hand" - a fully functioning trading scheme which covered a third of global emissions - for a potential deal that might dissipate into "mere hot air" in 2020.

(Additional reporting by Barbara Lewis in Brussels; editing by Ros Krasny and Andrew Hay)