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

Jake Schmidt

Posted June 7, 2011

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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.

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John FieldsJun 8 2011 11:11 AM

I do feel that the planned scheme, if passed, will do nothing to protect the environment as those persons flying, for example on transatlantic routes out of Europe will be literally forced to fly with none European airlines via other routes including Dubai, prior to connecting to transatlantic flights. The UAE are already responsible for well over 30 tons of Co2 per capita compared to the 9 of many European countries. This forcing deeper problems on the environment as people will be forced in to flying for a further 2 hours plus, in the wrong direction, this simply adding to a problem that already exists.
Another point I wish to mention is that the aviation industry is responsible for less than 3% of world Co2 emissions where as the ship industry is responsible for an ever rising greater percentage of Co2 emissions as well as up to 30% of all nitrogen oxide and 9% sulphur oxide pollution, not to mention the further and much greater environmental impacts cause by oil spills, ballast water transfers and marine debris. A recent US study carried out showed that the worlds 90,000 cargo ships alone lead to 60,000 deaths a year. This problem however has not been addressed. I feel this being a strong case of “out of sight, out of mind” thinking by the responsible environmental agencies.
Instead the aviation industry has been constantly bombarded with ever higher taxes at an already crippling time when some major airlines are trying actively in reducing climate emissions. Lufthansa German airlines, for example recently announced a 2.4% reduction in its kerosene usage in 2010 compared to the previous year. This equates to a mere 1.2 litres of kerosene per 100 passengers / kilometre. A contributing factor in this was the purchase of 47 new fuel saving jets. The airline also announced a planned 25% 2020 reduction of kerosene compared to 2006 figures. I feel that the ever rising costs placed on airlines as a result of such tax schemes will place such programmes in danger of collapse and will do nothing more than to transport the problem in to further world regions.

Would it not be wiser to distribute the planned emission trading scheme across the industrial sector and not simply between the airlines?

Jake SchmidtJun 8 2011 11:55 AM


Thanks for the comment. I find the claim that people and airlines would reroute their flights laughable. Fuel costs are a major component of an airlines costs and landing and taking off burns a bunch of fuel. So I doubt they would incur that extra cost just to avoid the EU's regulations. Plus passengers would avoid those flights as instead of having a direct flight you would now have a flight with 2-5 hours more added on. The price would have to be cheaper on that 2 stop flight to make it even the least bit attractive. And since this program will have little price impact I doubt you would see the kind of price swing that would make people want to add 2-4 hours to their trip. Plus the cost of having 2 stops might even be higher as now the airline would have fuel costs for an additional landing and take-off.

The EU program treats all carriers equally. So European, US, Chinese, UAE, etc airlines all have to comply. This creates a level playing field. Alternative policy designs would create unfair advantages to other carriers.

The United Kingdom is responsible for "less than 3% of the world's emissions". So by that same logic they shouldn't have to control their pollution. But instead they have one of the most aggressive efforts in the world. No source of pollution can avoid contributing emissions reductions if we are going to solve this challenge. Total US transportation emissions are only 5% of the global total, but they are undergoing a series of new policies to reduce their emissions. So based on that logic they should be excluded. But that isn't acceptable.

Completely agree that international shipping should also reduce their emissions. Their is a similar effort for international shipping and growing talk in Europe about extending their program to also require reductions from ships that use EU ports.

John FieldsJun 10 2011 07:58 AM

Hi Jake
Thanks for your reply but once again I have to disagree, the fact that passengers would rather fly other routes out of Europe in order to not be further crippled by higher prices is a fact that we are already experiencing in Europe.

1. The latest aviation tax which was introduced in Germany at the beginning of the year showed a mirrored image of that which was experienced in other EU countries who tried introducing such taxes. The people have to fly and rather than take on heavier taxes those living in places bordering other countries prefer to either travel over the border or to take a short haul flight to a country that does not have such taxes, therefore avoiding the long haul tax that would have been payable in Germany.
2. Emirates have continually been thorn in the side of Europe and the planned EU emission trading scheme will only make the matter worse.
Fact is: Emirates will only have to purchase certificates for the flight from Europe to Dubai. It has long been planned to turn the UAE in to a so called world hub. The only world hub existing and when fully completed will be greater than any hub already existing.
The idea of this hub has always been to introduce so called “bringer flights” to the UAE and to connect the people to their destinations from this hub. Whether to Asia, the north, south America or any other destination for that matter. The pure location of Dubai on the globe makes this whole plan very critical from an environmental position but as Emirates have constantly been subsidised from the heads of UAE, is based in a tax free country, have no environmental taxes, pay comparably low wages to their staff, have much lower overheads this makes it feasible and the statistics are showing just that.
If a family with its 2.4 children plan to vacation once a year and taxes make up 50% of the holiday budget then it’s very clear that they will look for a cheaper alternative and will probably take the stay over in Dubai as part of the vacation. That neither laughable but is becoming an every day fact if it makes environmental sense or not.
Introducing certificates in Europe will do nothing but add to the already, ever greater environmental impact that this loop hole creates.
I would call on all politicians to keep this in mind when opening new landing slots.

I wish to state that I have always classified myself as an outright environmentalist but I am also a realist and I do feel that may politicians loose their sense of everyday life when they are sitting in office trying to make a name for them selves but having little knowledge of the impacts which follow.

Best regards

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