WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Concessions made by the United Nations' aviation body to wrap up two weeks of tense negotiations could make achieving the goal of a market-based measure to cap carbon emissions from airlines harder to achieve.
The International Civil Aviation Organization agreed in Montreal on Friday to design a global scheme to reduce the growth of the sector's greenhouse gas emissions. The scheme will be hashed out in 2016 and is intended to start in 2020.
But existing differences between countries sharpened at the talks over two key concessions: a decision to restrain the ability of the European Union and other regions to regulate airline emissions until 2020, and the inclusion of controversial language in other U.N. climate negotiations.
Countries such as China and Saudi Arabia called for ICAO to recognize the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" (CBDR) under the U.N.'s climate change convention. The language requires rich countries to assume a bigger burden in efforts to reduce carbon emissions and has been a source of deadlock in negotiations for years.
Connie Hedegaard, the European Union commissioner for climate action, and Siim Kallas, transport commissioner, applauded the final deal and said pressure from the EU helped clinch it.
But some members of European Parliament said it may not be strong enough.
The Parliament must now decide whether to delay beyond April 2014 the European Commission's plan to demand carbon permits from all airlines flying into and out of Europe.
German Christian Democrat politician Peter Liese, who steered the original law, said the resolution hinders the EU's ability to apply its law to flights traveling over European airspace, which he termed "indispensable."
"The European Parliament will not agree that until 2020 we only cover intra-European flights," he said in a statement.
If Parliament and the European Council do not agree on an amendment, the EU will be forced to restart the clock on its law, likely triggering fresh threats of a trade war among countries that oppose the measure.
Annie Petsonk, international counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund, said that while ICAO took a step toward a longer-term goal of a global market, it violated "a bedrock principle" of international law, "that nations have the sovereign right to limit pollution emitted in their borders."
The last-minute introduction of the CBDR principle into the resolution, meanwhile, opened the door for conflict at the next round of ICAO negotiations in 2016.
The United States, Australia and some European countries raised official "reservations" about its inclusion, meaning they are likely to raise concerns at the 2016 meeting.
Attempting to create the framework of a global emissions market could put the CBDR principle on a collision course with ICAO's own principle of non-discrimination.
"A global (market-based mechanism)established under those conditions might create an unintended competitive advantage for airlines that have significant global market share but are registered in 'developing countries'," said Steven Truxal, an aviation law professor at City University London.
Countries like China and Russia also voiced reservations about specifying an industry-backed target in the resolution for carbon-neutral growth in the aviation sector by 2020, signaling they may try to have the goal dropped in 2016.
Still, the International Air Transport Association, an airline industry group, praised the agreement, which it had a large role in shaping, and said a global market-based mechanism will help the industry achieve the carbon-neutral growth goal it set in 2010.
The airline industry backs a global offsetting mechanism as its preferred market measure.
"We are eager to get on with the detailed work needed to design the global scheme in time for finalization at the 2016 Assembly," said Tony Tyler, IATA's director general.
But Germany's Liese said the agreement does not reassure him that such a market will emerge by then.
"Unfortunately, we have no guarantee that the system will be introduced in 2020 and that the benefit for the environment is substantial. There are too many ifs and buts," said Liese.
Reporting by Valerie Volcovici, editing by Ros Krasny and Kenneth Barry