Why are big carbon polluters trying to stop pollution controls on airlines?

March 7, 2012 | 12:58 pm | , Solutions Analyst

Did you know that someone flying from New York to London and back generates roughly the same carbon pollution in those few hours as the average European homeowner generates from heating her home all year long? Or that the annual carbon pollution from airlines (700 million tons) (PDF) is equal to annual emissions from 150 coal fired power plants? That’s part of the reason the European Union has enacted a new set of rules to reduce carbon pollution from aviation.

© 2008 Masahiro Hayata/Flickr cc by sa 2.0

Unfortunately, the world’s biggest carbon polluters are trying to derail this timely and positive action on climate change. The usual suspects – the United States, China, India, Russia, and Saudi Arabia – met recently in Moscow with 20 other nations to formally oppose the EU’s new rules. By signing the “Moscow Joint Declaration,” these countries declared their readiness to start a trade war and to coordinate international action against Europe’s new rules.

Given that the new EU rules could help airlines make money and reduce carbon pollution without costing passengers very much, the opposition to these rules seems to be about the fact that some countries don’t want the EU to promote policies that have an impact outside Europe. Climate change, however, is a global problem, and the EU’s plan is a positive, forward-looking step that recognizes the interconnected nature of our globalized world.

So, then, what does the plan do? The new rules affect any commercial airline that operates flights taking off or landing in Europe. These airlines have a limit (or cap) on the carbon pollution they are allowed to emit. If airlines pollute over the limit, they have to buy special permits, known as “allowances,” to cover the extra pollution. This serves as a disincentive to go over the limit, and even offers an incentive to pollute less, because airlines that stay under their limits can sell their own extra allowances and make money! There are a number of ways airlines can become more efficient, pollute less and thereby earn more.

Reducing carbon pollution from flights should come at minimal cost to airline passengers. If airlines decide to pass on the complete cost to their customers, a two-way transatlantic flight could cost up to $16 more. But actual ticket price increases so far have been far lower, ranging from Ryanair’s additional 33 cents to Lufthansa’s extra $9. Major U.S. airlines have announced $6 in additional charges for transatlantic flights. Where does this money go? EU member states have already committed to using the funds to tackle climate change.

Here’s the expected result: Between 2013 and 2020, airline pollution will be reduced by 5%. Does that sound like an ambitious goal? Not if you know that 97% of all airlines have already pledged to stop growing emissions altogether by 2020 (PDF), to improve fuel efficiency by 1.5% every single year from 2009 to 2020, and to reduce emissions by 50% by 2050 (based on 2005 levels)! So the EU rules merely spur the airlines to reach their own target a few years sooner, given the urgency of climate change.

In the absence of any effort to reduce carbon pollution by airlines, and with rapid growth in international travel, airlines are expected to contribute nearly 5 percent (PDF) of global greenhouse gas pollution by mid-century. Given that we’re at a juncture when we need to reduce carbon pollution from every possible source, instead of letting it rise, we need to seize opportunities in the aviation sector to help it grow and prosper in a low-carbon manner. The EU plan is one such example.