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When will Uncle Sam stop giving lessons to the EU on aviation?

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The United States recently intervened to stop Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport from restricting flight numbers, arguing it would unfairly affect US airlines. But rather than meddling in European affairs, the US should concentrate on its own aviation climate problem, argues Jo Dardenne.

Jo Dardenne is aviation director at Transport & Environment, an NGO promoting clean mobility.

The US (and specifically its airlines) are currently challenging the courageous attempt of a European country to address its aviation’s sector’s impact on people.

With current growth trajectories, utter reliance on fossil fuels and slow ramp up of alternatives, aviation is set to grow into one of the biggest climate bombs of the transport sector.

It seems natural that some countries want to stop making the problem bigger, as is the case in the Netherlands. But the Americans seem intent on getting involved. 

This isn’t the first time the US, led by its powerful airline lobby (Airlines for America, A4A), have tried (and succeeded) to interfere in EU decision making on aviation.

Let’s rewind back to 2012, when the EU decided to include all aviation emissions within its own carbon market (the EU ETS). The Obama administration retaliated by adopting a bill excluding US airlines from the scheme. Uncle Sam didn’t want the Berlaymont monitoring its airlines’ emissions.

In an act of collaboration (or cowardice), the EU still reduced the ambition and scope of the EU ETS in order to give time for an international agreement on aviation emissions to be negotiated, which is now called Corsia – a cheap, useless offsetting scheme allowing airlines to continue on polluting at barely no cost.

The US itself has failed to adopt regulation that would allow the Federal Aviation Agency to enforce Corsia’s offsetting requirements on US airlines, as the monitoring provisions are only voluntary.

It also seems that the US is even trying to bypass Corsia’s main calculation methodologies to promote its own damaging corn ethanol industries.

But American carriers love to remind European regulators that this failed offsetting scheme is the ‘only’ mechanism to address international aviation emissions.

US airlines fail to remember that the EU has the right and legal responsibility to regulate its own aviation emissions and so do its member states, as confirmed by the EU’s own Court of Justice ruling in favor of the EU’s ability to regulate its aviation emissions (case C-366/10).

The Chicago Convention, ICAO and the EU-US Open Skies agreement cannot prevent the EU and its member states “from adopting measures that would limit the volume of traffic (…) when such measures are linked to protection of the environment”. 

And this brings us to 2021, when the EU published its set of Green Deal policies, including revising carbon pricing rules and most importantly introducing one of the world’s biggest SAF mandates. 

Here again US airlines and the US government itself hit back against most of the measures. Despite their opposition, the final package adopted increased carbon pricing slightly and mandated an increasing use of SAF in aviation. 

The package even includes carbon fees that are recycled to cover some of airlines’ costs when using SAF, which could be seen as a smart way of making the industry pay for its own decarbonisation, instead of European taxpayers.

Despite the EU’s ambition to address aviation’s climate impact, member states see that these measures don’t go far enough to address the sector’s exponential growth.

Our own analysis shows that the emissions savings that would result from the EU’s climate package would be countered by aviation’s growth. That’s why in France, in the Netherlands, in Spain, governments are trying to do more to address aviation’s unsustainable growth, especially as it only benefits a handful of individuals in developed countries.

But here again, another Democrat US President is intervening. Most recently, they managed to convince the Dutch government to pause the reduction of the Schiphol airport flight cap. 

The noise levels of Schiphol have surpassed legally set norms as from 2014. The government finally decided to remedy this breach by temporarily reducing its capacity. 

Now the rights of local residents to cleaner air and less noise are sacrificed, for what? The responsibility of the Dutch government to tackle a big climate polluter put on pause, for what? 

When is the US going to look itself in the mirror and concentrate on its own aviation climate problem instead of worsening our own? Is the EU taking Biden to Court over the billions of subsidies going to biofuels that are even more harmful than their fossil alternatives? No. Is the EU taking US airlines to court for greenwashing? No (although we probably should).

This meddling in Dutch and EU political affairs is yet again the proof that US airlines are not serious about their sustainability targets.

How can you trust net zero targets when they lobby for the complete opposite behind closed doors? US airlines are lobbying against any measure that would help the sector decarbonise, including any US SAF policy plans.

The problem is that US airlines’ reactions are fuelling those who want to delay ambition in the EU and they know it. Including parts of the European Commission, who they even met to discuss opposing the flight cap back in December 2022. This gives into the narrative of profit-driven EU airlines that try to protect their fundamentally flawed business model. 

The US (and its airlines) should realise that they have a lot to learn from European ways of regulating. President Biden should definitely not be giving regulatory lessons, when he himself fails to adopt any meaningful bill in his own jurisdiction, unless it has billions of tax credits attached to it. 

Would you rather have a government using your tax paying money to over-subsidise a damaging biofuels industry, or take action to encourage polluters to pay for their own decarbonisation? 

It’s time for the US to stop listening to its airlines and interfering unless it’s to promote a new way of collaborating.

We can expect the next chapter of US interference to continue as our climate laws for aviation come into force. But the US should think twice before attacking measures that can actually help aviation meet its own ambitious climate objectives.



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