International Airlines Group (IAG) remains in favour of the European Union's Emissions Trading System (ETS), despite widespread opposition to the controversial carbon reduction measure that will include aviation from 1 January 2012.
British Airways (BA) and UK aviation lobbying group Air League invited representatives from across the aviation industry as well as policymakers, non-governmental organisations and academia to discuss arguments for and against ETS at the airline's headquarters near London Heathrow on 18 November.
Willie Walsh, chief executive of BA parent IAG, who has long been an ETS proponent, reinstated his belief that while it will only be one of a range of different means to improve aviation's environmental performance, "ETS will be an effective measure".
"I am convinced the airline industry needs to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions...and anything we can do to reduce carbon dioxide is good," he added.
Opposition came from either side of the political spectrum. Friends of the Earth director of policy Craig Bennett said that while ETS was in theory an attractive incentive to cut emissions, he doubted whether the market-based emissions trading system would lead to actual greenhouse gas reductions.
"I am worried that we fiddle around with carbon credits as we dealt with financial credit [before the banking crisis], lose track and end up with no carbon dioxide reductions," he said.
To achieve tangible cuts as soon as possible, Bennett advocated the introduction of carbon caps and taxing aviation fuel.
Keith Mans, chairman of the Air League's council, supports ETS in principle. But due to the current volatile economic environment and prospect of a second recession in three years, he thinks it comes at the wrong time and is, therefore, "probably a dead duck at the moment."
He warned that it could weaken the airline industry's ability to weather the storm and give carriers from outside Europe a competitive advantage. He also believes it could eventually lead to higher net carbon emissions through, for example, changes in traffic patterns via indirect routes.
Boeing's UK chairman, Sir Roger Bone, acknowledged that the scheme could have an effect if applied on a global scale, but argued that "it did not make a lot of sense on a regional basis".
Over the course of the debate, however, he did concede that the European initiative could be a step towards an equivalent global system.
Bone's central position was that the main responsibility for carbon reductions is on the aircraft manufacturers with the development of more fuel efficient equipment. He asked policymakers and the public to have "a little more trust" in the industry to come up with new technology that would allow the necessary carbon cuts.
Damien Meadows, head of the EC's unit for international aviation and maritime emission trading schemes, believes the greatest stumbling block is in finding political consensus. He said that the aviation industry had delivered "fascinating achievements". Anything blocking further progress, he added, would be down to "bureaucrats and politicians".
Meadows made it clear that it would be better to replace ETS with an equivalent global system. But given the international opposition, notably from the USA, China, India and Russia, he doubted that a global agreement would be possible in the foreseeable future. It would, therefore, be better to go ahead with ETS for the time being, he argued.
Walsh believes that ETS can be developed into a global scheme, but that would require "political skills we have not seen [so far]".