Fighting climate change has been a top priority for the European Union over the years. The group of countries has been working hard to cut emissions, while encouraging other countries to do the same. As of January 2012, aviation will become part of the union’s emissions trading system; world airlines traveling to and from the EU will pay the price not only for their fuel-burn, but for international indecision as well.
Experts agree that excess carbon dioxide emissions are the culprit behind global warming. The EU claims that emissions from aviation have almost doubled since 1990, so it is no surprise that the EU has taken steps to guard against future climate impacts, such as crop failures, droughts and flooding.
The problem is, however, that nations outside the EU are concerned that the unilaterally imposed measures are inconsistent with international legal regimes.
Those inside the EU say the emissions trading scheme was drafted in response to indecision on the part of nations outside the European bloc when crafting environmental measures. Other nations contend that instead of drafting its own program, the union should have used the International Civil Aviation Organization as a venue to address the issue and develop a solution in cooperation with other countries.
ICAO representatives have said the issue of aviation in the EU ETS is on the agenda for the upcoming meeting in November. At that time, officials from 26 countries, including the U.S., plan to express their joint opposition to the scheme.
In addition to litigating the matter in European courts, other countries have begun to fight back. For example, the U.S. House of Representatives has proposed legislation that, if passed, would impose fines of $25,000 per day on any U.S. airline complying with the scheme. This unfortunate outcome would amount to a trade war with airlines, and their passengers and cargo shippers would be caught in the middle.
All countries involved in the EU controversy could pay a huge price for an ill-conceived solution. While global economic uncertainty continues to pressure the airline and airfreight industries, increasing costs may prove unacceptable to customers who care about the environment in the long run, but are currently more concerned with business survival.
Despite the challenges made by airlines and foreign governments, the EU is not backing down. The bloc plans to force aviation into its ETS in January. The EU’s plan includes a free allowance on carriers per tonne of carbon emitted, but they eventually plan to impose charges. Some estimates say this will cost airlines more than $10 billion by 2020.
Any emissions strategy needs to consider that regardless of increased efficiencies gained from aircraft design and the use of biofuel, the business of flying planes does have an impact on our environment. Nations must not delay in implementing fuel-saving air traffic control programs that reduce emissions through more efficient flight navigation.
However, a solution needs to incorporate environmental responsibility without hindering the benefits of aviation for both passenger travel and timely cargo shipments. Therefore, free emissions allowances should be generous and easily obtained before air passengers and shippers begin to pay.
If mutually acceptable climate program agreements fail to materialize and unilateral initiatives such as the EU scheme prevail, the resulting retaliatory trade wars between nations could create more damage to the world economy than global warming itself.
The preferred alternative is to endorse an integrated approach to climate and energy policy that commits all nations into a highly efficient, low-carbon aviation industry. This is a global challenge — savings on one continent will do little to solve a worldwide crisis if other countries are not included.
In order for a worldwide solution to be mandated, countries need to reach a mutual agreement. ICAO is the best forum to address these emissions issues and to ensure global aviation industry sustainability. Unilateral and mandatory moves taken without the agreement of all involved parties are unacceptable. Such solutions will have an extremely negative impact on the world’s aviation industry.
Air currents may blow harmful pollutants between nations, but with a collective effort, the winds of change will bring an effective solution to this significant challenge.