* Commission says would only change law if U.N. scheme
* Many doubt U.N.'s ICAO can deliver
* Commission set to tackle maritime emissions next
By Barbara Lewis
BRUSSELS, March 23 The European Union climate
chief heads to the United States next week to defend the bloc's
carbon charge on flights to the EU, while governments, airlines
and planemakers warn it could lead to chaos in the skies and a
The law, which officially took effect on Jan. 1, has a long
lead time, so none of the airlines faces a bill until next year
after their emissions have been calculated.
Before then, a series of smaller deadlines will elapse for
submitting data under the EU's complicated Emissions Trading
Scheme (ETS) to cap climate-warming greenhouse gases from power
generators, heavy industry and now airlines.
India said this week it would ignore the next one on March
31, following on from noisy protests from China, which has
linked suspension of $14 billion of jet orders from European
planemaker Airbus to its fury with the EU.
Airbus's arch-rival, U.S.-based plane-maker Boeing,
has for once found common cause with Airbus in its dislike of
the EU scheme.
In a meeting last month in Moscow of the so-called
"coalition of the unwilling", countries opposed to the EU law
agreed on retaliatory steps, though they did not agree on
EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard has said time and
again the only reason for the EU to alter course would be if the
United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)
could come up with a global plan to tackle rising carbon
emissions from the sector.
"It's not that you can threaten us to change the law," she
told Reuters last month. "It's one thing that they do not like
what Europe is doing. What can they agree to in ICAO?"
Next week Hedegaard will be in Washington to discuss
transatlantic climate issues with U.S. administration officials
and Members of Congress and to receive a Women and the Green
Economy Leadership Award.
On this issue, the United States has been less appreciative
of her leadership. It has sent her letters of complaint about
the ETS and threatened, but stopped short of agreeing, blocking
legislation in Congress.
So far, U.S. airlines are complying grudgingly.
IT'S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY
The penalties for breach of the EU law start at 100 euros
($130) for every tonne of carbon airlines fail to pay for, while
the cost of compliance is estimated at about 2 euros per
passenger for a flight from Shanghai to Frankfurt.
Persistent offenders could find their flights banned. That
might trigger international air chaos if other countries
retaliate, as they say they might.
Opponents say it is about national sovereignty, not cost.
The EU adopted its law in 2009 after well over a decade of
inaction by the ICAO to address rising emissions, and in
December last year, Europe's highest court found the EU's law
Before agreeing it, the EU's executive arm consulted
stakeholders, including airlines. At the time the airlines said
they would prefer a market-based ETS to a straightforward tax,
but they have since said it depended on how it was implemented.
While support from governments beyond the bloc has been
lacking, within the EU all 27 member states have held firm
publicly, with ministers and the European Parliament both
reiterating their backing this month.
All sides in the row say they are looking to the ICAO to
redouble efforts to find a solution on which everyone can agree.
But no one expects any kind of decision before the end of
the year, conveniently after the election in the United States,
where climate policy has become a battleground between President
Barack Obama and his opponents.
Even then, EU sources, analysts and aviation lawyers say
they are not hopeful of a global agreement, given the ICAO's
track record so far.
Its members include the same governments that issued trade
war threats and held breakaway meetings to draw up a battle
"Even if ICAO could manufacture some sort of draft treaty,
that doesn't mean anyone is going to be willing to sign and
ratify it," said Gabriel Sanchez, adjunct professor of law at
the International Aviation Law Institute at Chicago's DePaul
"The EU might still find an ICAO-brokered treaty to be
insufficient to address the emissions issue and therefore still
keep its ETS in place."
The question remains whether Europe can hold its nerve or
agree to a classic European fudge. It could, for instance, waive
emissions charges for the non-European section of flights in and
out of EU airports, to alleviate sovereignty concerns.
Hedegaard says she is determined to build on success at U.N.
climate change talks in Durban last year.
Progress there was incremental rather than revolutionary,
but Hedegaard's experience of dealing with 27 member states
every day helped her play a lead role in getting nearly 200
nations to keep the Kyoto climate-change process alive.
"As we did in Durban, the EU will continue to set the pace
and fight for more ambition here and abroad. We will continue
working to get all our partners on board for the ambitious
action our planet demands," she wrote in an opinion piece
carried on Reuters.
For all the difficulties over airlines, the Commission says
it is pressing ahead with plans to tackle shipping emissions and
is expected to announce proposals later in the year.
Most observers, however, predict some kind of levy rather
than an attempt to draw another global sector into the
fiendishly complicated and controversial ETS.