The European Parliament exempted foreign flights from Europe’s emission curbs through 2016 in a bid to avoid a global trade war.

The European Union assembly voted to spare carriers ranging from Delta Air Lines Inc. to Air China Ltd. the need to pay for emissions from flights into and out of the EU for an extra four years.

The EU Parliament ignored a recommendation by its environment committee to reject the compromise, without which international flights could have faced the European emission caps now. Peter Liese, a German member of the assembly, negotiated the deal for a longer exemption with EU governments, whose final approval due on April 14 is a formality.

“The emissions-trading system will again apply in full after 2016,” Liese said in an e-mailed statement after the EU Parliament’s vote today in Brussels.

The compromise is the centerpiece of EU efforts to force airlines to cut discharges blamed for global warming without prompting trade partners including the U.S. and China to retaliate over European legislation they say breaches international law. This gives the International Civil Aviation Organization time to come up in 2016 with a global system for tackling carriers’ greenhouse-gas emissions.

“If ICAO fails to deliver a global agreement, then nobody could justify our maintaining such an exemption for another four years,” Liese said.

Emission Caps

EU trade partners’ opposition to European emission caps on foreign airlines serving Europe prompted the bloc to scale back legislation — the first of its kind — that imposed the curbs on all flights into and out of the bloc as of 2012. The EU backtracked by exempting foreign flights for that initial year to encourage ICAO to reach a global pact as soon as 2013, leaving the system to apply only to intra-European routes.

Last year, ICAO refused to endorse any unilateral European caps on foreign flights and vowed to pursue a global accord that might take effect at the end of the decade. That led the European Commission to propose to exempt all foreign flights from the EU’s emission caps for one extra year — 2013 — and to apply the curbs to the European portion of foreign flights beginning this year and lasting through 2020.

EU governments shied away from that proposal by the commission, the 28-nation bloc’s regulatory arm, by pushing for the full exemption on foreign flights to be extended through 2020.

European Portion

The EU Parliament supported the commission-proposed exemption of foreign flights for 2013 while threatening to cap more than just the European portion of those journeys as of 2017 in the absence of a global agreement. That led to the compromise between EU governments and Liese, who steered the measure through the bloc’s Parliament.

After the Parliament’s environment committee refused on March 19 to endorse the deal by a vote of 29 to 29, Liese predicted the full 766-seat assembly would swing behind the compromise. In its vote today, the Parliament endorsed the deal by 458 to 120 with 24 abstentions.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Stearns in Athens at To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alan Crawford at Andrew Clapham, Jones Hayden

Photo Credit: Pollution has recently become an issue in major European cities like Paris, which recently made public transit free for a weekend in a bid to get drivers off the street. Charles Platiau / Reuters