EU Flies High on Cutting Carbon Emissions

U.S. Waits in the Wings
Beginning this year, airline passengers going to, from or within the European Union will fly a bit greener thanks to a new EU law that cuts carbon emissions from aircraft.

The European Union Aviation Directive is the world’s first and only mandatory program designed to address emissions from aviation. Considering that aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of global warming emissions and could be responsible for as much as 10% of human-caused global warming by 2050, it’s high time that more eco-friendly planes got off the ground. And since flights to the European Union account for about one-third of all global flights, the new law will cover large swaths of the carbon-filled sky.

The new directive is expected to cut carbon emissions equal to taking 30 million cars off the road each year. And, as with any externalized cost like carbon, once the cost is internalized into a company’s bottom line most companies are keen to cut that cost as much as possible, creating industry-wide incentives for deeper cuts. If the airlines reduce their emissions enough, they’ll actually make a profit by selling their excess carbon permits.

Of course, if the airlines exceed their emissions standards, they must pay to pollute. The airline industry trade group International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that flight costs in and out of Europe could increase from $21 to $45 to comply. That’s a steep tax, but consider that to date Delta Airlines is the only airline to add a surcharge to EU flights to help offset compliance costs—and it’s a measly $3 each way—so the industry group’s numbers might be overblown.

Only time will tell whether other U.S. carriers pass on the cost of complying with the new law to their customers, and at what price. United/Continental and American Airlines have expressed disappointment in the new rules, even going so far as to challenge the legality of Europe’s aviation emissions trading system while complying with the very rules they’re fighting against (the court ruled against them in December.). Even the Obama Administration has spoken out against the rule, arguing that the EU should await a “comprehensive global solution” before addressing aviation emissions to avoid unfair treatment of any one country( i.e., the U.S.)

Advocating for a global solution is great, except that the U.S. spent almost the entirety of the Durban climate talks thwarting that very notion, instead pushing for countries to move forward individually while building a global approach. Passing the buck on curbing aviation emissions is nothing new. It’s been happening since 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted and countries first pledged to address aviation carbon emissions through the U.N.’s aviation body.

The EU law, passed in 2008 with broad support, is in response to the U.N.’s perpetual foot dragging. Airlines worldwide have been complying with the monitoring and reporting provisions of the law since 2010. Yet China has vowed to ignore the rule and India is planning to undermine it, even though the EU laws offer countries an “out” exempting those that implement equivalent carbon cutting measures from its aviation industry.

The U.S. should break stride with these non-compliers and instead level the playing field by imposing equivalent restrictions on aircraft using U.S. airports. In the meantime, they should begin adapting their practices and planes to be more eco-friendly. The sky’s the limit.