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Congress should not try to stop the Europeans from controlling aviation's carbon pollution

Jake Schmidt

Posted June 2, 2011

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Why would a reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have anything to say about the steps that Europe is taking to reduce carbon pollution from aviation?  The answer should be nothing.  But unfortunately the US Senate is considering language passed by the House of Representatives that would signal unhappiness with Europe’s efforts to control the carbon pollution from aviation.  The Senate and the White House should reject this language as it is incorrect as a matter of law, would attempt to stop another country’s efforts to reduce carbon pollution, and would hamper incentives to enhance aircraft fuel efficiency which saves consumers money.  A point recently highlighted by major environment, development, and faith-based groups in a letter to the Senate.

When the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to reauthorize the FAA  they included a provision (H.R. 658, sec. 511) which would seek to undermine Europe’s efforts to control carbon pollution from aircraft that land and take-off in Europe.  When the Senate passed its FAA reauthorization bill (S.233) they didn’t include such a provision and it appears that such language was never considered or debated.  But now the two bills must be reconciled and there is the possibility that the Senate will agree to include the language in the final bill.

The EU’s program – the Aviation Directive – is well within the requirements of international law.  Independent assessments have concluded that the inclusion of greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation in the EU’s program: “is consistent with all relevant international provisions and therefore permissible under international law”.  All flights to and from Europe are subject to the same requirements to reduce pollution – they don’t discriminate between European, US, Chinese, or other carriers.  This is important because international law related to aviation requires that you apply a common standard to all flights that use your airports.  So each plane that uses European airports has to comply with European law – a very common requirement for companies operating in another country.  

The program requires very reasonable pollution reductions.  The aviation sector is a major source of the world’s carbon pollution – accounting for more emissions than the entire United Kingdom.  And left unregulated, aviation emissions are on pace to quadruple by 2050 (see figure).  The EU program requires a 3% emissions reduction (compared to a 2004-2006 baseline) by 2013, and a 5% reduction by 2020.  Aviation's growing contribution to climate change if left uncheckedGiven the needed pollution reductions to address global warming this is a very modest cut in pollution.  It also provides airlines with several avenues to meet their targets.  And flights arriving from countries with equivalent programs are exempted from the requirements.  So any country that undertakes similar binding cuts in aviation emissions through their domestic law would be able to have their flights excluded.

US companies are already competing to produce better airplanes.  US-based aircraft and engine manufacturers are already making strides to produce more efficient airplanes.  Boeing characterizes its 787 as having “unmatched fuel efficiency” and using “20 percent less fuel for comparable missions than today's similarly sized airplane.”  And Time Magazine just included an article highlighting Connecticut based Pratt & Whitney’s new engine: “that promises a 16% better fuel burn and carbon emissions.”  The European program would encourage airlines throughout the world to purchases these more efficient aircraft and engines that US-based companies are already producing.  This would help create US manufacturing jobs, while saving consumers money as the airlines spend less on fuel costs.  

So why would Congress consider a provision that would send a signal of unease about the steps another country is taking to reduce carbon pollution?  Especially at a time when it failed to pass a climate bill that would have addressed aviation’s emissions in essentially the same manner as the European program.  Unfortunately, we don’t know why Congress would include such a provision as there has not been a debate on this language.  The fate of this provision rests in the hands of a small group of Senators negotiating the final compromise bill with the House.  Let’s hope they do the right thing and drop this language.


Here is the full text of the ill-conceived House language in the FAA reauthorization (HR 658):


       It is the sense of Congress that--

             (1) the European Union directive extending the European Union's emissions trading proposal to international civil aviation without working through the International Civil Aviation Organization (in this section referred to as the `ICAO') in a consensus-based fashion is inconsistent with the Convention on International Civil Aviation, completed in Chicago on December 7, 1944 (TIAS 1591; commonly known as the `Chicago Convention'), and other relevant air services agreements and antithetical to building international cooperation to address effectively the problem of greenhouse gas emissions by aircraft engaged in international civil aviation;

             (2) the European Union and its member states should instead work with other contracting states of ICAO to develop a consensual approach to addressing aircraft greenhouse gas emissions through ICAO; and

             (3) officials the United States Government, and particularly the Secretary of Transportation and the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, should use all political, diplomatic, and legal tools at the disposal of the United States to ensure that the European Union's emissions trading scheme is not applied to aircraft registered by the United States or the operators of those aircraft, including the mandates that United States carriers provide emissions data to and purchase emissions allowances from or surrender emissions allowances to the European Union Member States.

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ChadJun 3 2011 02:06 PM

Jake, I'm an aviation journalist, but I'm also a progressive when it comes to environmental issues.

That said, I think the House is correct, here. And here's why: the Europeans are trying to regulate emissions for the entire flight to/from European airports, including the portions over the U.S. and international airspace. Essentially, Europe is trying to regulate activities over the U.S. That should not be ceded to Europe, as this would set a dangerous precedent. It's the "what's next?" part that should send chills down everyone's spine, here. If Europe just stuck to emissions generated over its sovereign lands, then there would be no issue here.

We should instead focus our efforts on what we can do here in the U.S. to stem emissions. And before everyone jumps up and yells "Cap and tax," consider that bio-jet fuels could be, or nearly be , carbon neutral. Add that biofuels would help the U.S. become more energy independent, and it's a double win. Also, in the currently political climate, increased R&D for alternative fuels is a lot easier sell than a cap-and-trade bill. For many reasons, we must put alternative fuels at the top of America's to-do list -- for our environment's sake, as well as for geopolitical reasons.

Jake SchmidtJun 6 2011 04:25 PM


These emissions aren't owned by the US, so even if the emissions occured almost completely over the US the House would still be incorrect as a matter of law. When I get on from a EU airport I'm subject (still in many airports) to US security measures. So basically even though I'm sitting in an EU airport the US requires that the EU comply with US norms. This is no different. A plane landing in the EU must comply with the EU's requirement that it reduce its pollution. We don't let companies decide whether or not they want to comply with another country's law before they sell a product in that country. So why would we allow aviation to avoid complying with the EU's rules.

I'm not sure how the EU could expand the program any more -- the "what's next scenario" that you mention. In any case, the EU has a responsibility (as does the US) to take all reasonable steps to address climate change. Anything short of that shouldn't be acceptable. So the EU is taking steps to address an unregulated source of pollution. They should be applauded.

Indeed the EU program allows any country that has an "equivalent" system to remove its carriers from the system. The onus is on the US to develop, implement, and prove that it has an equivalent system. I haven't seen such a proposal yet from the US carriers that are challenging this program in EU court. If and when they do we would be happy to support their equivalency claim.

Jake SchmidtJun 6 2011 04:27 PM

Forgot to mention that we are closely tracking the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group which is looking at biofuels:

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