What Happens After the USA Pulls out of the International Civil Aviation Organization?

The UNESCO vote this week shows that when push comes to shove, a vast majority of countries would rather admit Palestine to UN agencies than back down from an American threat to withhold funding from those agencies.

In the coming weeks or months, the Palestinians will apply for membership to the International Civil Aviation Organization. They will be admitted. And when Palestine is admitted, the United States will withhold funding. When the United States withholds its membership dues, it will lose influence and, eventually, its vote.

No one outside the aviation industry really pays much attention to the ICAO. But you should!  It’s the international body that sets all sorts of standards for commercial air travel. This includes everything from maintenance schedules to deciding on airport codes to “the minimum procedural requirements necessary to conduct safe and efficient operations during those conditions which require aeroplane de-icing and anti-icing activities.”

This is pretty boring stuff.

Recently, though, there has been what amounts to drama at the ICAO. At issue is a European Union proposal to include international airlines in its carbon emissions cap-and-trade system. The EU wants to compel airlines flying to and from Europe to purchase carbon credits or face a fine.

Personally, I think there’s merit to the idea of the aviation industry participating in carbon cap and trade. Not surprisingly, the American aviation industry does not.  The American government, too, considers this an unnecessary economic burden on an important domestic industry.  Accordingly, it has lead a charge at the International Civil Aviation Organization to squelch the EU’s plan to internationalize its carbon trading scheme.

This week, the USA succeeded in to pushing though a statement that was adopted by ICAO’s governing council saying international airlines should be exempt from the EU cap-and-trade scheme. A majority of the countries sided with the United States.

Resolutions adopted by the ICAO are not binding international law. But they do set important precedents. In the next year, when the European Union’s carbon trading plan for airlines kicks in, there will be a legal fight between the United States and Europe. This  will probably take place at the World Trade Organization or the International Court of Arbitration.

When lawyers for the United States and EU square off, the USA can point to this ICAO resolution to bolster their case.

In an alternate universe in which the United States is not a member of the ICAO, who knows if the United States could so earnestly defend the interests of the American aviation industry?  Alas, unless congress lifts a prohibition against American participation in any UN agency to which Palestine is a member, the United States will be compelled to sit on the sidelines.

American policy makers should ask themselves which is a greater priority for the national interest: that Palestine be excluded from the ICAO, or having the United States at the table the next time Europeans try to impose levies on American industry?