By Barbara Lewis
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union will freeze for a year its rule that all airlines must pay for their carbon emissions for flights into and out of EU airports, the EU executive said, following threats of international retaliation.
Flights within the European Union will still have to pay for their carbon emissions. The year-long exemption will apply to flights linking EU airports to countries outside the bloc, a move welcomed by U.S. and Asian officials.
Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said she had agreed "to stop the clock" to create a positive atmosphere for international talks on an alternative global plan to tackle airline emissions.
"But let me be very clear: if this exercise does not deliver -- and I hope it does -- then, needless to say, we are back to where we are today with the EU ETS (emissions trading scheme). Automatically."
The United States, China and India have put intense pressure on the European Union. Debate in the U.S. Congress is set to resume this week on legislation to counter the EU rules.
"While I am pleased the EU has temporarily suspended its efforts to unilaterally impose a tax on our airlines flying over U.S. and international airspace, the EU's announcement does not rule out future efforts to tax foreign carriers," said Senator John Thune, who led efforts in the U.S. Senate to block the law.
China likewise also opposed what it said was the EU's unilateral move and prefers to work under mechanisms such as the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
"China always maintains that under the multilateral mechanism, such as the UNFCCC, ... international cooperation should be carried out to tackle climate change," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing.
"We should oppose unilateral measures."
EU member states must still formally endorse the Commission's proposed freeze. Hedegaard said she had told representatives of all 27 member states of the plan but could not say how long the EU approval process might take.
German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier said the decision was justified. "It made clear that the EU is holding on to its view, but at the same time it is also in the position to stick to its international commitments and actions," he said.
"GUN ON THE TABLE"
Some airline associations welcomed Monday's announcement, but said the moratorium meant EU carriers operating flights within the bloc could be at a competitive disadvantage.
Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA) Director General Andrew Herdman described the freeze as "long overdue" but said it might not go far enough.
"The implied threat of an automatic snapback in a year's time means that the EU will still be seen by some as negotiating with a gun on the table," Herdman said in a statement.
Environment campaigners said the European Union was giving up too much, too soon. But they said opponents could no longer blame the European Union for any lack of progress at the U.N.'s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which is seeking an alternative global deal. Continued...