Obama's bill signing puts spotlight on ICAO and on whether U.S. will drive agreement to cut aviation pollution

President Barack Obama yesterday signed into law Senate bill 1956, the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme Prohibition Act of 2011. The new law, as we've covered before, authorizes — but does not require — the Secretary of Transportation to prohibit airlines from participating in the European Union's anti-pollution law.

If it were ranked as a country, the aviation sector would be the world’s 7th largest source of greenhouse gas pollution. Pollution from aviation is rising 3 to 4 percent per year. Image source

In a statement after the signing, the White House said:

The Obama administration is firmly committed to reducing harmful carbon pollution from civil aviation both domestically and internationally …

The Administration remains focused on making progress in reducing aviation emissions through the appropriate multilateral forum – the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) — and we welcome the recent progress there in establishing a new High Level Group charged with accelerating negotiations on a basket of measures that all countries can adopt at the next ICAO Assembly meeting in September 2013 to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from aviation.

EDF and leading environmental groups WWF, Earthjustice, and Natural Resources Defense Council said in a joint statement "now is the perfect time to make a global deal happen," and underscored their "readiness to work with all stakeholders to get the job done."

Responding to the bill's passage and signing just weeks after Europe "'stop[ped] the clock' on the implementation of the international aspects of its ETS aviation" to facilitate international discussions, EDF's international counsel Annie Petsonk said:

Unlike the bill that passed here in the U.S., Europe’s stop-the-clock on its law aims to ‘create a positive atmosphere’ for the international talks.Now the spotlight is on ICAO, and on whether the U.S. will step forward with the real leadership needed to drive agreement on an ICAO program to cut aviation’s carbon pollution.

The background section of our joint statement has a good summary of the EU law, progress in ICAO and S.1956:

Background:

Aviation is a significant source of global warming pollution and is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions if left uncontrolled.  If it were ranked as a country, the aviation sector would be the world’s 7th largest source of this pollution, which is rising 3 to 4 percent per year.

Europe’s Aviation Directive, which includes aviation within Europe’s economy-wide Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) from January 2012, is a pioneering law that holds airlines accountable for emissions associated with commercial flights that land at or take off from EU airports.  The program is projected to reduce carbon pollution equivalent to that produced by 30 million cars by 2020.

On November 9, the 36-nation Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) decided to form a high-level advisory group to provide guidance on crafting an international program to reduce emissions from aviation, with the aim to adopt an agreement at their next triennial Assembly in September-October 2013. In response, the European Union announced it would stop the clock for one year on the implementation of its law capping the carbon emissions of international flights landing and taking off from European airports.

The preceding developments render irrelevant S. 1956, U.S. legislation signed today authorizing the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to prohibit U.S. airlines from taking part in the European emissions program.  If the Secretary of Transportation were to implement the prohibition outlined in the bill, it would require unlawful behavior on the part of U.S. airlines and would risk igniting a trade war with the European Union. However, the bill also puts the U.S. government on record supporting efforts to secure an international approach to reduce aviation’s global warming pollution.

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