Lawsuit against EU airline pollution law would undercut U.S. goal of limiting aviation emissions

In the continuing war by U.S. airlines against Europe’s climate pollution law, last week the klieg lights were focused on the companies’ unsuccessful attempt to ram through the U.S. Senate a bill barring the airlines from complying with the EU law. (A 17-country meeting called by U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern to try to bridge differences between China and the United States on addressing aviation pollution also got some attention.)

Airlines are pushing the U.S. to bring an "Article 84" lawsuit that would be counterproductive to the administration's goal of international action on reducing aviation emissions. Above: ICAO world headquarters. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But behind the scenes, the airlines launched a different line of attack, badgering the U.S. administration to file an international legal case arguing that Europe’s program is illegal under international law.

The EU law that’s got the aviation industry so riled up is the only program in the world that sets enforceable limits on carbon pollution from aviation. That pollution is set to quadruple from 2005 levels by 2050 if left unregulated.

The industry is demanding that the U.S. government bring the case under Article 84 of the Chicago Convention on Civil Aviation, and adjudicate it in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), in Montreal, Canada.

But the airlines have already tried the lawsuit tactic before, and they lost. After two years of court argument, a panel of thirteen judges on Europe’s equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court held that the program was fully consistent with international law.

Other courts are highly likely to defer to the opinion of these highly respected international jurists. It looks like what the airlines want to do is press the administration to use taxpayer money to litigate a case that the airlines’ own attorneys already lost.

That kind of lawsuit would be decidedly counterproductive if the administration’s real goal is – as it has repeatedly stated – to get action in ICAO on limiting greenhouse gas emissions from aviation.

Article 84 is a protracted process – it can grind on for years. While that might be good for lawyers, it would divert the time and energies of the ICAO secretariat and the national delegates to ICAO. The delegates and staff would have to deal with the litigation instead of solving the tough technical problems and bridging the deep political differences needed in order to get a strong agreement in ICAO on cutting aviation pollution.

There’s also a possible legal conundrum in the Article 84 process that could prevent the case from being heard even if it were filed. ICAO’s Rules for the Settlement of Differences, Chap. III, Art. 6. says that cases shall be heard by

five individuals who shall be Representatives on the Council of Member States  not concerned in the disagreement.

What that legalese means in English is that, under the rules of Article 84, five members of the 36-member ICAO Council sit as judge and jury when one country brings a complaint against another – but under those same rules, any country that is a party to the dispute cannot have its representative participate in deciding the case.

Since all the EU countries are parties to the dispute and since all but three of the ICAO Council Member States signed the New Delhi and Moscow declarations opposing the EU law and thus are also “concerned in the disagreement” by virtue of having taken a position on the issues in the case, only three countries – Burkina Faso, Morocco, and Swaziland – would be left to adjudicate the case. That’s short of the five impartial states needed under the rules.

Trying to use Article 84 to deal with the differences between countries in ICAO over how to limit aviation pollution is really beyond the scope of the Article, since it was designed to address disputes between two countries, not broad policy disagreements among large groups of countries.

We think rather than plotting how to slow down an already leaden process, the better path would be for the U.S. to accelerate and broaden the discussions that the State Department and Department of Transportation convened last week, and get down to creative solutions for cutting the pollution that’s heating up the planet.

Related: see a letter EDF and other environmental groups sent today to President Obama urging him and his administration not to file an Article 84.

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