EU Environmental NGOs and Aviation

As sketched above, European eNGOs seemed to be natural allies of DG CLIMA in that they tried to hold the industry to account for its emissions. They have been actively commenting on aviation expansion in Europe and this also translated into policy statements, such as the Joint Policy Proposals for a Sustainable Future Aviation Strategy prepared with the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF), Campaign for Better Transport, Friends of the Earth, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWf) (AEF 2014). eNGOs’ work on this issue was considered ‘continuous’ as far as highlighting the sector’s climate impacts (Buhr 2012) and the eNGOs more radical in their proposals than the Commission. This can be illustrated by the proposals from eNGOs circles to include information on passenger tickets about the detrimental impacts of aviation on climate and to allocate individual annual flight allowances to reduce the number of trips taken (Staniland 2009). Furthermore, there were divergences concerning baseline years: the eNGOs wanted to see baseline years consistent with 1990 Kyoto Protocol baselines. The baseline years for the EU ETS and levels of allowances to be auctioned that the eNGOs wanted to see were more ambitious than those finally approved by the EC (Staniland 2009).3 Civil society organizations thus acted in opposition to the industry that lobbied for keeping regulations as weak as possible. The aviation industries could additionally count on the state’s support in the debate: manufacturers enjoyed the advocacy of the countries where their plants were located and the airlines tried to have their messages reinforced through their countries’ legislation.

It has been argued that in EU ETS aviation issues three types of civil society organization have been active: organizations concerned with broadly understood environmental and climate problems such as Greenpeace, the WWF, and Friends of the Earth; transport-focusing organizations such as Transport and Environment; and lastly, the organizations that ‘appeal directly to citizens within individual Member States, urging them to take action’ (Staniland 2009, p. 10). This to certain extent has been confirmed in the interviews conducted. However, it is clear that the involvement of large eNGOs from the first group was different in Europe and in the United States. In the EU context they were symbolic supporters, leaving space for the transport-focusing bodies. At the same time, in the United States the lead was taken exclusively by the large eNGOs: WWF, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) (see Section 4 below).

One of the interviewees from a European civil society organization described the relation with the Commission as follows:

If we can go to them and say, look we have done this analysis, it saves them having to do it. And they will often at least listen to ideas and in the Commission they are very open to meetings, at least with us, I know that you had some issues, but they are generally pretty good. And we are generally on their side. They generally see us as an ally. So in that sense it is quite easy. (Interview 14.03.2014)

In relation to this, one of the DG CLIMA interviewees considered civil society organizations as useful in that they are able to feed the Commission with valuable information and thus the Commission’s staff is able to channel their resources elsewhere. As explained by another Commission interviewee: usually they [eNGOs] have very useful inputs and they give their point of view on what needs to be done, which is usually trying to push for more ambition. Sometimes they also give technical advice on certain parameters, which they think are more suitable than others. They try to somehow be a counterweight to the industry in general. (Interview 14.04.2014)

There is, however, no consensus concerning the NGOs’ place while interacting with the Commission. A high-ranking EC staff member saw the Commission-civil society cooperation differently from their DG CLIMA colleague:

They [eNGOs] are not our allies because the Commission always tries to be in the middle. We don’t have any allies anywhere, maybe on specific files that we think that our position is closer to one actor or another but usually we are there to try to define public interest and the NGOs do the same from their point of view. We simply look at the arguments that are brought forward by everyone. (Interview 14.04.2014)

This clearly conveys the message of the EC as an impartial body easing power asymmetries and facilitating decision-making between member states, their constituencies, and third countries (Tsakatika 2005). The massive attack on DG CLIMA that was to induce the suspension of the EU ETS was orchestrated by the EU member states, EU and non-EU aviation industry as well as the non-EU governments. The attack isolated DG CLIMA to the extent that the only support could be anticipated from the eNGOs side. Notwithstanding this, one of the EC interviewees was not entirely happy with the organizations’ involvement:

I think here the NGOs could have been more effective (...) I think, in my ideal world, the NGOs would be pursuing a twin-track strategy of sort of aiming for the best possible global system but also, I mean one of our mantras is the best is the enemy of the good, and I think the ETS is still good, even if it is not global and can provide a model for something global, so sort of making the system work, seeing how it can work best in the absence of a global system. (Interview 16.04.2014)

The perception of the work of eNGOs in this case varied in relation to the Directorate General an interviewee would represent. The staff of DG CLIMA saw the position of eNGOs as much closer to their stance on the inclusion of aviation whereas DG MOVE was less inclined to be persuaded by the organizations’ arguments. This can be explained by the different mindsets that the two Directorates tend to feature (Interview 29.04.2015). DG CLIMA has, since its establishment, promoted ambitious targets, which often situated it in conflict with more industry- oriented DGs. At the stage of creating the EU ETS, the Commission was considered to be dominating the European policy network by discussing the EU ETS (Braun 2009). This position is very different a decade later, when aviation was to be included in the scheme and the EC was far from being able to exercise control over the process, partly because of competition between the DGs taking part in the discussions on the aviation inclusion.

Similarly, in the EU ETS case, there has been strong reinforcement of DG CLIMA messages coming from the European eNGOs that have been advocating on behalf of the EC at the member state level. At the end of 2013 a coalition built on AEF, Transport & Environment, Bund-Friends of the Earth Germany, and Reseau Action Climat France addressed a letter to the prime ministers of Great Britain, France, and Germany, where they opposed curtailing the scope of the EU ETS and explicitly mentioned how the three governments blocked EC ambitions. The letter mentions that

last month with the ink on the Commission’s ‘airspace’ proposal barely dry, your Government [it is a fragment of a letter addressed to the British prime minister David Cameron] adopted a joint position with France and Germany pressing for yet a further retreat, so that the system would leave out flights from and to Europe entirely, and cover flights within Europe only. (AEF 2013)

The eNGOs were thus able to amplify the Commission’s messages and assessments. What is more, the eNGO community was able to use more aggressive language than the Commission would normally have used,4 which in turn reached a wider public and was more easily picked up by the media.

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