ALAN GEORGE BRUSSELS While keen to work within a global framework, Europe has its own environmental agenda, says Eckard Seebohm, the man charged with leading aviation environmental policy in Brussels

For Europe, at least, next year's assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), will mark a defining moment in efforts to manage the environmental impact of air transport. Having mapped out a broad five-year strategy in the environmental policy document released last November, the European Commission (EC) is awaiting word from the assembly before further "fine-tuning" of its position.

But, should ICAO fail to deliver the goods, then Brussels makes it abundantly clear in the same policy Communication that it will not abandon its own initiatives. In particular, it demands more stringent noise controls.

"In our Communication, we draw attention to properly defining the balance between action at the international level, at the regional European level and at the level of European Union member states and local authorities," says Eckard Seebohm, who heads environmental policy for aviation within the EC's Transport Directorate.

While careful to stress the desire for a world consensus, Seebohm adds that the EC does not believe that ICAO has a "monopoly" on environmental issues. "The extent of any need to resort to complementary European action will be decisively determined by the outcome of the next ICAO Assembly in 2001," he warns. One of the positive outcomes of the ongoing European-US row over hushkitting (Airline Business, March), adds Seebohm, is a "a greater recognition in nearly all quarters" of the need for effective international agreement.

ICAO is also charged with ensuring that aviation plays its part in meeting the world targets on greenhouse gas emissions, laid out two years ago at the Kyoto summit on climate change - an event hosted by ICAO's parent organisation, the United Nations. "ICAO has a key responsibility to organise a framework for a contribution from the international aviation industry towards fulfiling objectives on greenhouse gas emissions," says Seebohm.

It must act decisively on this matter, if it is to "safeguard" its own role within the broader environmental debate.

In the process, ICAO will have to bridge a wide range of competing interests, including those of the developing economies and the more environmentally pressured industrialised world. "We must find ways of catering to both sets of interests, and not seek meaningless compromises or take a one-sided approach," says Seebohm.

The EC's desire to see improved technical standards on noise and emissions is outlined in the recent policy document. It provides pointers to how economic and regulatory measures could be used to encourage operators to speed up their adoption of environmentally friendly technologies and operations, based on the principle of "rewarding the best and punishing the worst".

Although the paper rules out the introduction of kerosene taxation for the moment, it highlights three main areas for further study: the imposition of environmental charges on airlines; emission trading; and voluntary agreements with industry on engine emissions (see box).

Seebohm emphasises that the EC's approach to introducing market-based environmental incentives is in line with that of ICAO's Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP). The working group CAEP/5 identifies three areas for action: levies, embracing charges and taxes; emission trading, which plays a vital role in the Kyoto process; and voluntary agreements.

He says the "favoured thinking" in Brussels is to look at the "possibility" of complementing en route charges with an environmental extra charge, "preferably" based on the environmental performance of the equipment used.

"There's a lot of work before us to assess the feasibility of such an approach," adds Seebohm. "We are launching our own studies and this work will be undertaken in close co-ordination with ICAO. We do not intend to run ahead of the conclusions of CAEP/5."

As Seebohm says, the alignment of thinking between the EC and ICAO on economic incentives is largely the result of pressure from Europe. "We have a strong self-interest in seeing what comes out of the CAEP/5 process," he admits. "There is a strong belief in Europe that we need, in addition to technical minimum standards on noise and emissions, economic incentives for operators to improve environmental performance beyond these minimum standards. Under the present system and, with the exception of modulated airport charges, such incentives are largely lacking. This is a key weakness of the present system."

Fuel tax

Despite EC studies which conclude that a kerosene tax (applied to all operations departing from Europe) could help influence aviation's environmental impact, Seebohm does not favour this controversial approach.

"If we did that, we would be violating international agreements," he says. "We could impose fuel taxes exclusively on European operators, but we recognise that would undermine their international competitiveness. We would be discriminating against our own operators - and, at the same time, if compared with a taxation of all operators, the environmental benefit would be very limited."

The EC's next step is to look at the feasibility, legality and the effectiveness of economic incentives in a study to be undertaken by an external consultant "very soon". The results of the study - giving a "European perspective," on ICAO's own work - will, it is hoped, be available early next year, says Seebohm.

Brussels recognises that more will have to be done if the complex and varying environmental pressures at local level in Europe - particularly relating to noise around airports - are to be addressed satisfactorily. At the same time, it needs to fit what are essentially local issues and decision making into a broader European framework, while accommodating the aviation industry's need for growth. "Capacity-constrained airports are, as a rule, environmentally constrained airports," he says.

Given a general reluctance in the USA or developing countries to phase out the noisy aircraft that they fly into Europe, Seebohm says that the EC has been left feeling that it has little choice but to focus on trying to resolve the problem itself.

"Internationally agreed minimum standards for aircraft noise do not reflect state-of-the-art engine technology. As a result, airports can very swiftly come under intense pressure from local residents to restrict operations in order to reduce noise," he says. "We could target and help the most noise-sensitive airports without having to negotiate an across-the-board solution with our trading partners, which would be very, very difficult to obtain in a way which would fully meet European requirements," explains Seebohm.

Identifying the most noise-sensitive airports would require a "common scheme for noise classification" and "noise exposure index", both of which are being developed as part of a wider environmental noise initiative by Brussels, as well as ICAO. This system of measurement would enable "valid comparisons" of airports, impossible today because of the variety of measurement systems in use.

In addition, says Seebohm, the relevant authorities could explicitly link any demand to impose more stringent noise standards before their general introduction with the approval of schemes to expand that airport's capacity. "In this way, we believe that environmental objectives can be better balanced with the aviation industry's own interest in gaining expansion at capacity-constrained airports," he adds.

Overall, Seebohm believes that the EC's initiative has been well-received by most interested parties, including environmental groups. "I think we have managed to ensure that this paper and its action programme will be taken seriously by all stakeholder organisations. It constitutes a programme that tries to offer answers to clear pressures, which, if ignored, will undermine the aviation industry itself and aggravate international tensions," he says.


European Commission Policy Key Proposals Air transport and the environment: towards meeting the challenges of sustainable development:

Technical standards Prepare policy documents aimed at more stringent measures on aircraft noise than the current Chapter 3 standard. Introduce these measures even if, at its assembly next year, ICAO fails to agree on more stringent global noise standards and transitional rules for phasing out the noisiest categories of Chapter 3 aircraft. In these circumstances, consider an "economic hardship clause" for developing countries and take account of impact on competitiveness. In the short term, encourage operators to use "state of the art" engine technology. Commission aims to strike balance between uniform "bottom line" and local measures in regard to airport noise restrictions.

Emissions Prioritise the need to complement the ICAO-decision on Nox with other regional and locally focused measures and present EC argument at ICAO's 33rd assembly in 2001. The Commission believes an environmental agreement should aim at an increase of fuel efficiency of around 4-5% a year up until 2015.

Air traffic management Reduce air traffic delays and congestion in Europe. Support CAEP's task in ensuring the use of best operating practices to reduce emissions. Strengthen financial and technical support to European air traffic management systems and Eurocontrol. Prioritise validation modelling and prediction tools to optimise airport noise abatement procedures. Develop and validate longer term operational measures associated with aircraft and ground-based tools and safety nets to permit further reduction in environment impact.

Market-based incentives Based on principle of "reward the best, punish the worst" Only impose excise duty on aviation fuel if similar action is taken globally. Impose a levy based on the distance flown and aircraft engine characteristics, to be collected by Eurocontrol. Differentiate en route charges according to the environmental performance of the aircraft used. Consider a base rate emission charge targeting external environmental costs plus a premium favouring "clean" operations. Aim to work within ICAO's CAEP/5 programme for conclusion in 2001, but reserve the right to go ahead unilaterally if ICAO fails to deliver by this date.

Emissions trading

Undertake further studies into airports trading emissions rights compatible with slot trading. Set a cap on emissions under which trading can take place in Europe.

Source: The European Commission

Source: Airline Business