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EU climate commissioner stands firm

Tough green laws are unpopular with trading partners but necessary, says Connie Hedegaard.

The Financial Times has an interview with the EU's climate commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, in which she stands firm against calls from China, the United States, Canada and more to back down over green legislation.

The largest controversy has been sparked by the decision to make any flight into or out of Europe subject to the emissions trading scheme (ETS), and thus exposing airlines to the costs of their pollution for the first time. Normally, aviation is exempt from many of the taxes that other sectors take for granted due to its international nature, and this is still true for the most part - jet fuel, for instance, is duty and VAT free in the UK.

The airlines have not taken this lying down, and other countries have begun threatening to retaliate in kind. China has banned its airlines from paying the carbon taxes, which exposes them to escalating fines and, eventually, may disqualify them from flying to the EUat all; it has also "suggested" that nations stop buying planes from Airbus. The FT reports that Chinese authorities are blocking $14bn of orders. India has also announced that it is considering urging its airlines to boycott the scheme, and the US House of Representatives has passed a bipartisan measure aimed at making their carriers do the same.

When the FT asked Hegegaard if there may be some compromise, she said she would not even consider it:

Instead, she said she was devoting her energy to forging a global agreement to curb airline emissions, which would make the EU policy unnecessary.

“I understand very well that if you are a CEO of a European company, you get concerned,” Ms Hedegaard said. “We are taking things seriously, but we have to make clear that you can’t threaten a trade war just because you don’t like European legislation.”

“Nobody would like that more than us,” she said.

Hedegaard has also managed to provoke Canada into a potential trade war over efforts to label oil extracted from tar sands in Alberta as "highly polluting", which prompted the Canadian ambassador to the EU to write to her saying:

If the final measures single out oil sands crude in a discriminatory, arbitrary or unscientific way, or are otherwise inconsistent with the EU's international trade obligations, I want to state that Canada will explore every avenue at its disposal to defend its interests, including at the World Trade Organisation.

Domestically, the commissioner is not much more popular. Poland has twice vetoed her road-map aimed at reducing carbon emissions by 2020, without which most of her policy can't go ahead. But she is hopeful:

If you look at Warsaw and their major cities, you can simply see that the potential for energy efficiency is very big. Wouldn’t it be interesting to address that and reduce the energy bill of the citizens? Even for Poland, there is a case to be made.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.