Stand Firm Europe: the sky will not fall when the European system to control aviation's pollution is implemented

Whenever an industry is asked to address its pollution – or do anything different – we always hear claims of how this new action will lead to the industry to suffer, their competitors to benefit, or the sky to fall.  It is almost like clockwork.  Right now we are witnessing the clock ticking on the airline’s unfettered growth in carbon pollution so we are hearing those claims in droves.  The carriers from China and US are the loudest in their complaints but signals from other airlines are just as troubling.  Starting next year all flights landing and taking off in Europe will be required to reduce their carbon pollution.  And what are the airlines doing in response… claiming the sky will fall – just like clockwork.  Europe should stand firm against these misguided claims and move forward with implementing this legal and reasonable program to control aviation’s carbon pollution. 

Europe you are right to move forward with this action.  Since 1997, countries have been tasked with coming up with a global response to address carbon pollution from aviation.  After years of trying to get agreement, the international agreement was always just out of reach.  So faced with a choice of waiting even longer for a global solution or taking action right now, the Europeans chose to get off the sidelines and adopt a system for all flights using their airports.  And now with the airlines complaining Connie Hedegaard, the European Union Commissioner for Climate Action, and the Financial Times are firing back.  Their basic message, airlines you are wrong. 

Here is what Commissioner Hedegaard had to say (as quoted by Reuters):

"If nations and regions do not defend their legitimate right to legislate and take appropriate non-discriminatory measures applicable to all economic operators, it would send an extremely unfortunate signal and create problems not just for the global climate, but also for European companies and businesses."

And here is what the Financial Times had to say:

“Industry protests are a sign she is on the right track.”

The sky won’t fall.  This program won’t lead to the demise of the industry, won’t cause planes to choose different flight paths to avoid the EU, and won’t lead to a trade spat unless countries choose that silly path.  These are all claims that I heard first hand as I participated in the global aviation negotiations for 5 years (2000-2005).  The arguments are the same, but the facts are still against these claims.  This program requires very reasonable pollution reductions, is flexible, and encourages companies to find the best way to meet a defined pollution limit.  Companies that innovate and produce more efficient aircraft will benefit from the efforts.   Airlines that improve their fleet and operations will benefit.   And the list goes on.

Airlines won’t choose a different flight path just to avoid the program.  Why would an airline choose to inconvenience its passengers to avoid the EU system?  Does anyone think that an airline would really make a stop in the Middle East or the fly to some other point close to Europe in order to avoid meeting these requirements?  Given how time and cost conscious consumers are this claim is laughable.

And a trade spat over this.  Seriously?  All countries, including China and the US, have a way to get their flights to not be covered by the EU’s program  –  they can adopt an equivalent program at home.   So instead of threatening a trade war, these airlines should work at home to have their countries adopt a system with equivalent emissions reductions and legal certainty.      

The airlines supported an emissions trading system and now…The international negotiations around aviation’s greenhouse gas emissions focused on four policies to address aviation’s emissions: (1) cap-and-trade; (2) tax/fee; (3) direct regulation (standards for aircraft); or (4) voluntary self-regulation by the industry.  While some carriers have taken steps to improve their planes and operations, Aviation's efficiency improvement has slowed downvoluntary self-regulation hasn’t resulted in significant emissions reductions of late.  Independent analysis has shown that since 2000 very little (if any) improvements have occurred in efficiency of the global aviation fleet (see figure). 

Even with future efficiency improvements the projected increase in aviation’s total fuel-use is projected to quadruple by 2050 if left unregulated.  While efficiency improvements are important, it is total carbon pollution that ultimately matters as this is what leads to global warming. 

Faced with these realities and after failure to get a global approach, the Europeans implemented a firm limit on aviation’s pollution -- an approach that the airlines supported just a couple of years back.  The International Air Transport Association – the global trade airline association – recently stated:

“…due to aviation’s continuing growth, over the long term, technology improvements and operational measures alone will not be able to fully offset the increased emissions that are expected to arise from this forecasted growth.”

“Compliance costs under emissions trading would be about 66 percent to 75 percent lower than with taxes or charges to achieve the same target.”

They can’t have it both ways – arguing for the system that the EU is implementing and then complain when the EU goes ahead with it.

While a global agreement is still the most desirable outcome, the EU’s program is the next logical step after a global agreement failed to materialize.  After all, is the EU expected to wait longer for an agreement that was supposed to be developed 14 years ago?  We don’t have the time to wait. 

The EU should continue to move forward with its program and other countries should adopt equivalent measures to reduce the pollution from their airlines.  Everyone has a choice…and not taking action isn’t one of the choices.

About the Authors

Jake Schmidt

Director, International program

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