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European Union Shows Flexibility on Airline Emissions Law

IHT - NYT 7 Feb.12

The European Union could suspend parts of a new law requiring airlines to account for their greenhouse gas emissions if countries made clear progress this year toward establishing a global emissions control system, a senior official said Tuesday.

The comments, by Jos Delbeke, the director general for climate action at the European Commission, came the day after China announced that its carriers would be forbidden to pay any charges under the E.U. emissions system without Beijing’s permission.

The comments were the clearest sign yet that Europeans are considering how to defuse a mounting conflict over the new emissions law with its most important trading partners.

The law, which went into force Jan. 1, requires airlines to account for all emissions on flights using European airports. Its goal is to speed up the adoption of greener technologies at a time when air traffic, which represents about 3 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, is growing much faster than gains in efficiency.

But Europe’s bold climate initiative also could push nations heavily reliant on air travel into a trade war because of the effect of the new law on flights outside of European airspace.

Mr. Delbeke said at a conference in Brussels that he could recommend “a conditional suspension” of parts of the system, in which polluters can buy and sell a limited quantity of permits, each representing a ton of carbon dioxide, by the end of the year if nations sped up adoption of an effective global system.

For that to happen, any global system would have be better for climate protection than simply applying the E.U. system that is already in force, Mr. Delbeke said. A global system also would have to treat all airlines similarly and to set emissions reduction targets for a near-term date like 2020 rather than mid-century.

Meeting under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organization, an arm of the United Nations, countries should be able to show convincing signs of progress “immediately after the summer” to make it possible to suspend parts of the E.U. system before the first payments are due, on April 30, 2013, Mr. Delbeke said.

“It can be done,” he said, expressing the view that the I.C.A.O. could make sufficient progress over the next six months.

In the past, the European Commission, the E.U. executive body, has been critical of the I.C.A.O. for failing to establish standards and targets for greenhouse gases from aviation, a responsibility it was given under the Kyoto climate treaty 15 years ago.

Peter Liese, a German member of the European Parliament, said discussions had already taken place within the environment committee over how to adapt the new law in the event that other nations, perhaps through the I.C.A.O., put “something convincing on the table.”

Even so, Mr. Delbeke also sought to put the other nations on guard against punishing European airlines or European companies if progress toward a global deal was not sufficient this year.

“If there is retaliation, we are going to react,” he Mr. Delbeke.

Europe could fine carriers that refused to comply with system, bring a complaint at the I.C.A.O., and it “may consider” bringing a case at the World Trade Organization, Mr. Delbeke said.

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