It's crunch time ahead of this month's make-or-break annual summit of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
If no deal on aviation emissions can be reached at this summit, starting on 24 September, the EU and its large global partners may be plunged back into a trade war over the question of whether the EU can charge airlines for emissions that took place outside EU airspace.
All emissions from planes taking off or landing in the EU were to be covered under the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) from January 2012. But in November the EU suspended for a year its coverage of foreign air traffic after the US, China and others raised howls of protests over sovereignty issues.
The Commission said the offer was meant to give ICAO breathing room to agree a global system for restricting aviation emissions, but warned that if no deal was reached by the end of the year, the suspension would be lifted and foreign flights would again have to purchase emissions credits. This carrot and stick approach was meant to put pressure on ICAO.
But the definition of a ‘deal' seems to have gotten a bit hazy. European Voice broke the story yesterday that, based on leaked negotiating documents, it appears that the EU is willing to change its legislation to exclude non-EU airspace from the ETS in exchange for ICAO agreeing a timetable – committing to sign a deal by 2016 that would enter force by 2020.
If this sounds familiar, it's not your imagination.
In 2011, the Commission had a similar carrot-and-stick approach going into the Durban round of climate change negotiations. The Kyoto Protocol was set to expire. Big partners such as the US and China, who did not participate in Kyoto and had no intention of doing so in the future, were also keen for it to continue in some form so as to maintain the legitimacy of international climate negotiations. The EU threatened to let the Protocol expire unless the other big emitters agreed to a timeline to a future binding climate deal signed in 2015 and in force by 2020 – the Durban Platform.
In the end they agreed. European climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard was applauded for her steel resolve in refusing to renew Kyoto - now essentially an EU-only treaty after Russia, Canada and Japan backed out – unless the platform was adopted. But there is still uncertainty over whether the big emitters will honour their commitment to agree a future deal by 2016.
The same pattern is repeating itself this year at the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) in talks to reduce shipping emissions. The Commission was bound by the 2008 ETS directive to propose to include shipping emissions by 2012 if no global mechanism had been agreed by then. The Commission has so far demurred, no doubt anxious to avoid a repeat of the diplomatic kerfuffle caused by the inclusion of aviation emissions. But it has held open the possibility of including shipping emissions unless the IMO comes up with a global solution.
It looks like the proposed solution that will satisfy the EU is - you guessed it - another timetable.
Part of this is inevitable realpolitik. The hard truth is that because of the economic crisis weighing on the United States, and the thorny debates over ‘common but differentiated responsibilities' weighing on China and India, there is little prospect for climate deals at the current time. Timetables may be the best EU negotiators can hope for from its global partners right now.
But at the same time, the EU risks looking weak by retreating from its own unilateral action in exchange for mere ‘agreements to reach future deals'. There are many MEPs who worry that the EU's big global partners are learning the lesson that EU law is not something to be taken seriously. Is it the case that a little pressure from a foreign power or a large company can easily play member states against each other and force the EU to rewrite its rules?
In exchange for trusting global partners when they promise to eventually agree to binding multilateral climate action, the EU is surrendering a great deal of its ability to act unilaterally in the short term.
The Commission is right to point out that in the long term, more emissions will be saved with an eventual global deal. If it means more emissions in the short term, that may be worth it. But it takes a leap of faith to believe that these global players will honour the commitments they are signing up to in these timetables. In the mean time, Europe's hands are tied.
Dave Keating reports on the interrelated issues of environment, energy, climate change, transport, health, agriculture, fisheries and research for European Voice. In this blog, Dave brings you insights into the sometimes byzantine world of European Union policymaking as well as the equally confusing nature of life in Brussels. Originally from outside New York City, Dave has lived in Europe for six years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.