UPDATE | 9 p.m.
The U.S. State Department has released a transcript of a news conference held today during which a senior administration official says the starting point for this week's talks will be the International Civil Aviation Organization's (ICAO) 2010 resolution. In that resolution, countries set an “aspirational goal” of improving efficiency 2 percent per year through 2020, and then offsetting emissions above 2020 levels starting in 2021 (that’s what their phrase “carbon neutral growth” from 2020 means).
We think that’s a reasonable place to start, as long as the talks move forward, not backtrack. The 2010 ICAO resolution itself recognizes the proposal is not enough. It says:
the aspirational goal of 2 per cent annual fuel efficiency improvement is unlikely to deliver the level of reduction necessary to stabilize and then reduce aviation’s absolute emissions contribution to climate change, and that goals of more ambition will need to be considered to deliver a sustainable path for aviation.
The industry’s proposal – the green line to the right – is weaker than the ICAO resolution, and allows emissions to continue to grow.
The yardstick we’ll be using to measure any progress in the meeting over the next two days is: are countries speaking in terms of reducing aviation’s total emissions, with binding targets?
Or are the talks backtracking to the industry’s lowest common denominator?
BEGIN ORIGINAL POST
U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern will be in the hot seat tomorrow — in more ways than one.
Airlines are the world's seventh largest planetary polluter.
Everyone from the aviation industry to governments to environmental groups says that the best way to deal with pollution from airplanes is through the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO. (It’s pronounced "eye-kay-oh" or "ih-cow" … you say tomayto, I say tomahto…)
ICAO was tasked by world governments way back in 1997 to come up with a solution to this problem. Unfortunately, they’ve been dithering about it since your teenager was a toddler.
Meanwhile, in 2003, Europe suffered a climate catastrophe — a massive heat wave that killed more than 40,000 people.
Europe got serious about climate security after the 2003 heat wave. It enacted a law putting most of its industry under emissions caps.
Aviation basically got a ten-year grace period from that cap. But this year, for the first time, all planes landing or taking off from European airports will have to reduce their climate pollution. Those that don’t comply will face tough sanctions.
The law is causing a lot of complaining from the U.S.-based airlines, including United, American, and Delta.
To hear them squawk, you'd think Europe's aviation law meant “The End Is Nigh.”
But let's take a deep breath here.
The EU law only requires airlines to cut their pollution by 5 percent.
Economists commissioned by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to assess the impact on U.S. airlines found that the EU law might … I repeat, might … cost as much as $6 on a roundtrip ticket from the U.S. to Europe.
That's the same as the cost of a beer on a Delta or United flight.
Oh, and the economists said "might" because they found that — if the airlines met the EU law by flying more efficiently — they could actually make money from it.
So why is this so controversial?
Because … while Stern's meeting is aimed at coming up with new ideas for how ICAO can move forward, and while the EU's law is actually nudging ICAO in that direction … the U.S. airlines have other ideas.
United, American, Delta and their trade association are pressing to have the meeting focus on how to bring legal action against the EU, rather than focus on ways to make progress in ICAO. Specifically, they’re pushing for agreement to bring legal action under Article 84 of ICAO's governing treaty.
Never mind that the airlines don't have much of a wing to fly on for legal action. (They already brought and lost such a case in European courts.)
Never mind that Article 84 cases are cumbersome, time-consuming procedures that drag on for years and almost never reach a conclusion.
The airlines' real game is to tie ICAO up so deeply in the ponderous Article 84 process that it will never have time to work on a serious agreement on climate change.
The airlines are also lobbying hard for Congress to pass legislation barring U.S. airlines from obeying the EU's law.
Legislation like that is almost unprecedented in U.S. history. Last time we saw legislation blocking American companies from obeying the laws of the countries in which they do business was when Congress barred American firms from suborning apartheid in South Africa.
So the airlines are acting as if a $6 ticket surcharge is the equivalent of a massive human rights violation. (Just keep in mind airlines generally charge several times that much for a checked bag.)
That's what makes Stern's meeting this week so hot.
Washington didn't even invite any European countries to the table. Maybe it's because the airlines fear that with Europeans in the room, countries might actually start talking seriously about how to reach an agreement in ICAO that's as effective in cutting pollution as the EU law. (The EU has already said it will waive its law when — or if — ICAO does reach such an agreement.)
We're hoping the talks will illuminate some new paths forward. But against the backdrop of all the wacky weather Washington's had lately, the last thing we need here right now is “more heat than light.”