MEPs shocked by ‘secretive’ ICAO plan to cut aviation emissions

A six-year delay, exemptions for poor nations, and a gradual phase-in system for participating countries are all being considered as part of talks to curb aviation pollution at the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), MEPs discovered at a hearing in Parliament today (1 September).

Henrik Hololei, an official who headed the European Commission’s delegation to an ICAO high-level meeting in Canada earlier this year, appeared for a hearing in front of the European Parliament’s Committee on Environment.

Deputies said they were “shocked” to learn how many concessions the EU was prepared to make at the Montreal meeting, which took place in May behind closed doors.

The Montreal talks centred on the Global Market-Based Measure (GMBM) scheme which has been up for discussion since 2012 when the EU decided to “stop-the-clock” on its own aviation emissions trading system.

The EU initially intended to apply its aviation ETS to all flights landing or departing from EU territory but froze the scheme for international flights until 31 December this year in order to give ICAO a chance to conclude a global deal.

But MEPs were dismayed to hear the significant concessions Hololei said the EU was now considering in order to preserve chances of reaching an international agreement at the next ICAO general assembly opening on 27 September.

Any change to EU law following an ICAO deal would require approval by the EU assembly.

Six-year delay

According to plans currently under consideration, the global market-based system would be fully up and running in 2027 only, six years later than the initial 2021 deadline originally foreseen by the EU.

“On timing, the verification and monitoring requirements would start applying in 2019,” with the GMBM kicking-in “progressively as of 2021,” Hololei told MEPs at the hearing. “Inclusion in the scheme would become mandatory from 2027 through 2035”.

“On scope, the draft decision as it stands now would have an opt-in phase before all countries come on board in 2027, except those which are exempted,” Hololei continued, referring to small aviation players such as least developed countries and small island states for whom participation will remain voluntary only.

Finally, “a special review in 2032 will determine whether the mechanism will be continued,” taking into account progress made as part of a related “basked of measures” which includes “CO2 standards for aircraft”, technological improvements, air traffic management and alternative fuels.

“So that is what is currently being envisaged but I must stress that this is still very much a moving target,” Hololei said, adding, “the main issues relate to timing and scope”.

MEPs ‘shocked’

In a rare show of unity, Parliament representatives from across the political spectrum urged the EU to be more aggressive in the negotiation.

Bas Eickhout, a Dutch MEP who follows aviation issues for the Greens/EFA group, said he was “shocked” by the Commission’s apparent readiness to make concessions.

“We always said 2021 should be the starting date. What we’re discussing now is a voluntary scheme until 2027 and then still options for exemptions. That is a huge deviation from where we came from!” he exclaimed.

“Have you been brainwashed in Montreal? This sounds like the EU is giving away everything we stood for. Maybe a phase in for some countries can be accepted as of 2021,” but not more, Eickhout said.

“This is really unacceptable,” he added.

“Secrecy and lack of transparency”

Global leaders who met for UN talks in Paris last year agreed to aim for carbon-neutral growth in the aviation sector as of 2020, part of a landmark international agreement to contain global warming below 2°C.

But other countries in the ICAO “are much less committed than the EU” to reaching that goal, Hololei pointed out, reminding MEPs that the Commission had only observer status in the negotiations, which are taking place between ICAO member countries behind closed doors.

For Julie Girling, a British MEP from the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), it is the “secrecy and lack of transparency” in the ICAO process which is reason for concern. No statement or meeting minutes were distributed after the May talks, Girling pointed out, “almost as if nothing had happened”. Hololei later replied that those would be published in the coming days.

Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, a Dutch MEP from the Liberal group ALDE, defended “regional schemes” such as the EU’s aviation ETS as part of any ICAO deal. IATA, the global aviation industry lobby group, had spoken about “marginal costs for airlines” from the ETS, which shows the issue “is much more political”.

“If the costs are marginal, then why are politicians making a fuss about it?,” Gerbrandy asked. “This is the first big test: are we willing to do what we promised in Paris?”

Peter Liese, a German MEP from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), agreed and pointed to “shortcomings” in the ICAO process. “I’m worried to hear about a pilot phase. What’s happening in ICAO is not ambitious at all,” he warned, saying climate policy had moved beyond pilot phases. “I find this idea of a pilot phase sobering and scary.”

Speaking earlier, Girling concurred on that point, saying there was a “disconnect” between how Parliament and ICAO see the agreement taking shape.

“We see aviation as having been given an almost inexplicable exemption [from emissions regulations] whereas ICAO sees it as a pat on the back because they’ve been doing so well.”

2021 start date “not the most likely outcome”

Responding to the barrage of criticism, Hololei said the EU had wanted a mechanism to start as of 2021. “But in the international context, this is also a negotiation and there are other partners. And of course, we need to take that into account.”

Hololei, however, assured MEPs that the EU was “negotiating for the best possible outcome”, including on securing a regional scheme for Europe.

“The EU position has always been a mandatory scheme from 2021. We haven’t changed in any way our ambitions on that,” Hololei said. But “that is not the most likely outcome.”

Frédéric Simon,

This article first appeared on, an edie content partner

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie