Ever since the European Union declared - many years ago - that it was going to impose its concept of an emissions trading system on foreign air carriers that operate to Europe, the question on people's minds has been this: does the European Commission really think the rest of the world will suddenly realise the intrinsic goodness of this idea and agree to it?
Europe still purports to believe the rest of the world will fall into line, hence its suspension of the system for a year for intercontinental flights. However, it is not clear on what evidence the EU should believe that, in a year's time, the rest of the world will be converted.
Non-EU countries have said unanimously that the ETS proposal is, per se, illegal and a violation of their sovereignty - but it is not. The EU is entitled to impose EU law on those who operate within it. However, questions arise as to the legality of the EU's demand that airlines trade the emissions for their entire flight, even if only 10 minutes of it is in EU airspace - and that is the factor they all dispute. Therefore, the EU demand is not essentially illegal, it is just totally unworkable.
Calculating emissions on the small proportion of a long-haul flight from Singapore spent in EU airspace would be an intolerable bureaucratic burden with a trifling environmental benefit, plus the risk that any benefit might be negated by airlines routing further before entry to EU airspace to engineer a shorter passage within it.
There is a respected system by which nations are able to reach agreement on global aviation practice, so why the EU thought it could blithely ignore the ICAO route is, to say the least, puzzling. Nothing happens fast at ICAO, of course. Patience: getting global consensus takes time, but once reached, it works.
This debacle is making the EU look both politically arrogant and inept, which is an unattractive combination. Civil servants are paid to dream up systems such as the ETS to offer up to their political masters for consideration and, until the 2008 global financial crash, EU politicians were gazing into a golden future in which Europe would lead the world in green policy-making. The politicians, however, have been reluctant to admit the ETS is unworkable.
A non-bureaucratic solution would be for all states to agree to levy a single tax rate for fuel used on international flights. But, of course, none of that revenue would ever go to environmental causes.
(This first appeared as a Comment piece in 20 November Flight International)