Aviation Industry on Trial: The Dark Arts of Climate Obstructionism

The European Court of Justice is set to hold its first hearing today on the legality of the European Union's emissions trading plan for the airline industry. The Air Transport Association and several of its American member airlines are suing to overturn it. If they succeed, the first and only legally binding legislation to curb climate forcing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from air transport will be grounded at the gate, leaving aviation emissions to soar into the wild blue yonder.

Many are missing the importance of this moment in history. While the aviation industry currently accounts for only 2 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions (4 percent in the U.S.) it is one of the fastest growing sectors for GHG emissions. CO2 emissions from aviation (planes also emit NOx, Ozone and other pollutants) increased approximately 45 percent between 1992 and 2005, and will increase an additional 150 percent from 2006 levels by 2030.

Aviation is also an industry that receives massive subsidies, for example through exemptions from national fuel taxes and airport building subsidies. Recent scientific reports have also found that emissions from aircrafts have significantly higher impacts on climate forcing -- about 2.7 times of normal fossil fuels (PDF).

The landmark case dates back to 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol to the climate convention was signed. Governments ducked the thorny issue of regulating emissions from aviation and shipping, passing the buck to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) respectively. But in all this time, neither organization has managed to effectively address the rapidly growing emissions from either sector. In the case of aviation, it was agreed in 2004 to pass the buck back to national governments, concluding that emissions could best be addressed for example through national emissions trading schemes.

Frustrated by the slow pace of the international negotiations, and armed with an agreement that national schemes were permissible, the 27 countries of the European Union forged ahead. The EU rules were adopted in 2008, and are due to come into effect in 2012. Airlines have had four years specifically to prepare for the EU rules, and 15 years since the message was written on the walls in Kyoto.

It's difficult to understand their logic. They do not dispute the need (the advantage even!) to increase fuel efficiency and reduce emissions. And emissions trading has been the favored option of the airline industry, as reflected in the position of the International Air Transport Association at the 2004 Meeting (PDF): "Compliance costs under emissions trading would be about 66 percent to 75 percent lower than with taxes or charges to achieve the same target."

A detailed explanation of how the EU system works is available here, but the most important thing to understand is that the EU plan is not a tax -- it is a market instrument to keep pollution below a certain ceiling. Any airline which improves its fuel efficiency such that it comes in under the ceiling need not incur any extra costs at all.

The EU plan is non-discriminatory, applying to all airlines equally. It will not damage the industry given that the additional cost of the ticket would be something between $15-$57 on a round-trip, long-haul flight -- considering it costs around $10 just to book a flight on a credit card, this hardly seems like a deal-breaking obstacle.

It even goes so far as to recognize the validity of comparable measures -- airlines from any country that adopts its own measures to achieve the same result would be exempt from the EU scheme. In the event that a binding international agreement is adopted, the EU is willing to revisit its legislation. And, the rules only apply to flights arriving at or departing from airports in the European Union. The bottom line is that if you want to fly to Europe, you have to play by the EU rules, pure and simple.

In the meantime, while not formally joining the lawsuit, several governments -- most notably the U.S. and China -- have begun to cry foul. The U.S. brought its formal complaint to a joint meeting of U.S. and EU aviation officials in Oslo last week, and China is reported to have delayed a $4 billion deal to purchase 10 Airbus A380 jets out of protest.

The absurd irony of the Obama administration position was brought home in a recent Wall Street Journal article covering the meeting explaining that the "U.S. considers [it] 'the wrong way to pursue the right objective.' The U.S. argues Europe should pursue its goals through the United Nations' aviation agency."

This is a bit rich, considering the eight years of U.S. foot-dragging in that forum during the Bush administration. And China's position is equally absurd, arguing it should be exempt because it's a developing country. Anyone who can afford the price of the ticket in the first place surely cannot be classified as poor, so what's the problem?

Jake Schmidt of The Natural Resources Defense Council suggests,

Countries need to stop complaining about how the EU addresses the growing carbon pollution from aviation and start acting. We have waited long enough for a global solution and it hasn't materialized. The Chinese and U.S. now have a choice. Comply with the rules, or take action at home to address the dangerous pollution from aviation.

It seems that both the Obama administration and the airline industry need to abandon their obstructionist 'Dark Arts' with one part of the world -- Europe -- now ready to take real and significant action on climate change. If they don't change their position on aviation emissions flying the skies will be a lot less of a friendly affair.