Global Airlines Call For UN Intervention To Prevent Carbon Trade War

It may seem a bit wonky as an issue itself, but the growing carbon trade war precipitated by the European Union airline emission trading program, now roughly six weeks in effect, really is indicative of the continued global denial about the environmental impact of our activities.

For those that aren't up to cruising altitude on this one: From January 1 the EU emission trading scheme includes airlines landing in Europe, requiring airlines to pay for permits for the greenhouse gas emissions created by their flights. Some airlines and some nations are none-too-pleased. Particularly the US and China, as well as India.

The latter is now negotiating with the EU to get an exemption for "equivalent measures" taken domestically to reduce emissions, something which has always been part of the program, though a vaguely worded part. China has already barred its national carriers from participating without prior government approval, and is really leading the charge against the EU program.

On the other hand, some carriers, though crying foul, are complying and have announced they will levy surcharges on flights going to and coming from Europe. From the numbers I've seen, these will be small percentages of the overall cost of the ticket, less than what most airlines charge you to check a bag these days.

I've gone on at great length previously about airlines complaining about the costs of complying with the EU program. In short, on a per ticket basis the added cost—which should be passed onto the consumer if the price signal is to have its proper effect of incorporating the costs of pollution into the price paid by consumers—it's minimal. You're likely spending more on lunch in the airport, parking your car at the airport, or any other number of small travel-related expenses that if you can't afford to pay already then you frankly can't afford to the trip at all and probably shouldn't be going. The same can be said of airlines, if you can't be profitable paying the full costs of your environmental impact then you shouldn't be in business at all.

But that's a digression from the latest battle.

What's going on now is that, as Reuters reports, global airlines, represented by the International Air Transport Association, have called for the International Civil Aviation Organization, a low-profile UN body to step in an mediate the dispute.

IATA Director General Tony Tyler says,

The Chinese move to prevent its airlines from taken part in the Emissions Trading Scheme is a very bold move and it pushes the Chinese carriers very much into the front line of this particular dispute. This is an intolerable situation which clearly has to be resolved; it cannot go on like this.

A different Reuters piece sums up the airline industry objection:

Foreign governments argue Brussels is exceeding its legal jurisdiction by calculating the carbon cost over the whole flight, not just Europe. Non-EU airlines say the levy is discriminatory. Increasingly, governments and the EU's executive European Commission are looking to the U.N.'s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to find a global scheme that curbs airline emissions.

And why Singapore Airlines objects to the way that the carbon emissions per flight are calculated. Here's their CEO:

I was quoting the example of us flying non-stop from Singapore all the way to Europe. We get charged the whole journey, when somebody who could fly passengers to an intermediate point, and from there go to Europe, ends up paying much less.

Which is a fair point, to a degree. But the fact of the matter is that greenhouse gas emissions respect no national boundaries. Ideally a global solution is required to fully pricing the impact of flying (not to mention all greenhouse gas emissions). And the EU program isn't perfect. But it is something. It's a step towards the type of program that could be implemented.

The niggling concern I have is that, based on the statements I've seen from various airlines and governments, the complaints about discrimination to some nations and carriers, about the costs of compliance, while sometimes ringing true mostly seem just like putting off to some indeterminate point in the future financially acknowledging the environmental impact of flying.

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