MOSCOW The European Union's climate chief hopes to avoid a big battle over EU legislation that will charge airlines for pollution, despite a protest by global airlines and a tit-for-tat bill in the U.S. Congress.
Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard defended the EU legislation on Wednesday shortly before international airlines urged the EU to back down from plans to charge for carbon emissions on landing and take-off from Europe from January 1.
She dismissed concerns the dispute would lead to the cancellation of U.S. flights, despite a bill in the U.S. Congress that would make it illegal for U.S. airlines to comply with the EU law.
"I think in the way the European Union constructed its law there is plenty of room for flexibility and manoeuvre," Hedegaard told Reuters in an interview on a visit to Moscow, leaving open the possibility of exemptions for companies that make up for the harmful emissions in other ways.
"We also said third parties, if they do something else to try to cope with the emissions from aviation, can be exempted from paying in Europe when they land in Europe ... We are very willing to look into these equivalent measures."
Hedegaard gave no details but said she did not believe the dispute would lead to U.S. air companies avoiding Europe.
"I cannot imagine that. I think no one can. It is definitely not the intention of the European Union to make this a very, very big battle," she said.
But she added: "I must say it is a bit odd to have a legislative congress, the House of Representatives in the United States, saying: 'Please, airlines, you should not follow the law in other parts of the world.' That is rather untraditional, I would say."
Under the legislation, airlines will have to buy carbon permits for all flights to or from Europe to help offset their emissions under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS) -- the 27-member bloc's prime tool for trying to curb the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
Hedegaard, who is Danish, said the EU had agreed the legislation only after attempting without success to secure an international agreement on curbing emissions by airlines.
Tony Tyler, director general of the International Air Transport Association which represents 230 carriers, said the EU's plans to apply its Emissions Trading Scheme to aviation would cost airlines 1.2 billion euros in 2012.
The figure is equivalent to a quarter of their estimated global profits for 2011.
The United States and China are among 26 nations that are expected to oppose the EU's plans at a meeting of the U.N.'s International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal later on Wednesday.
EU lawyers have said any decision by the ICAO council would not be legally binding but could be a step towards a formal dispute procedure, in which the president of ICAO would mediate.
Hedegaard said there were many misunderstandings about the new law, including the costs that airlines would incur.
"What we are talking about if you go from New York to London is 1 euro 50 cents. If you are going from Beijing to Frankfurt, it is 2 euros added to the cost of a passenger," she said.
"So let's get the proportion right; let's get the facts right," dismissing media reports that the cost would be much higher and might force airlines to avoid flying to Europe.
Hedegaard said she regretted the dispute was distracting attention from the main job at hand -- reducing pollution and protecting the environment.
"I just think that it is a pity if some of our colleagues in other countries - now we are talking about governments - spend more energy on how they can fight the European way of doing this instead of actually trying to help us do what is the essence here - how we can take care that the emissions of airlines are also accounted for," she said.
"Ask any citizen, any passenger on a plane, and they would say it is only fair that we pay for the pollution that our travelling leads to."
(editing by Jane Baird)