European environmental thinking looks likely to press airlines to pay tax on their expansion. But perhaps carriers can choose what form it takes

A formal call for laws requiring airlines to join emissions trading had to come. Now it has done, even if only from a UK parliamentary committee that the government could ignore.

Calls from the European Commission for tax on aviation fuel are not new. Calls from environmental lobbying organisations for "polluter pays" levies on airlines have been out there for some time, but are getting more raucous and frequent. The "polluter pays" argument is destructive in the sense that the polluter is not intended to pay for research into technology that will reduce pollution; the tax is intended purely to price air travel out of the reach of more people and businesses. The question for proponents of this negative philosophy is: "Whom does the polluter pay?" The answer is government exchequers, but of course if the taxes are successful from the point of view of the environmental lobbyists and air travel actually does reduce, the benefit to the exchequer reduces too. Meanwhile, the government loses out simultaneously on tax from the businesses and prosperity enabled by or directly linked to air travel, tourism and air freight.

Two weeks ago (Flight International, 2-8 November) we examined the highly effective physical constraints that could be placed on air transport expansion by any government that either wants to restrain its growth, or which fails to confront the need for timely infrastructural planning to allow travel demand to be met. Our conclusion was that the best industry ally in this conflict is the consumer - the airlines' customers who make it clear they do not want to be denied the ability to travel. The same people have refused to accept constraints on personal road travel, so why should they be happy with constraints on their choice to fly? Airlines have to make consumers aware of what is going on in their name.

Meanwhile, it is not true that European motor vehicle drivers have been unconstrained in all respects. They may have been provided with their ever-expanding infrastructure - even if sometimes reluctantly - but their fuel is highly taxed and major routes are increasingly becoming toll roads. The air transport industry, already aware of the inevitability that environmental pressures will increase, had better start thinking about whether it can influence policy makers as to what form those pressures will take. If the industry is definitely going to be taxed - within Europe anyway - how would the airlines prefer to be taxed? Would they prefer fuel tax or emissions trading?

On the grounds that fuel tax is totally negative from the industry's point of view, emissions trading would be preferable. For those who believe global warming is a reality - and European governments are definitely signed up to that belief - emissions trading actually achieves environmental policy goals, and would enable the airlines to claim some moral high ground - not an objective they have ever felt they had to seek before.

Next year the UK - whose government is avowedly in favour of measures to control global warming - assumes the presidency both of the European Union and of the economically powerful G8 group of nations. The UK House of Lords EU subcommittee on environment and agriculture has just urged the British government, while it has this rare opportunity to influence a diverse group of nations within and outside Europe, to influence climate change policy. Not just that, but the committee has latched on to aviation industry growth as the greatest contributor to global warming. Forget the growing industrialisation and prosperity of populous countries such as China and India, which has a breathtaking potential to accelerate global warming, the spotlight has been swung directly on aviation. It is a much easier target, particularly since it can be picked off by region, starting with Europe. The USA will not be persuaded of the global warming theory under its newly re-established presidency, and even with a Democrat in the White House it would not loosen its love affair with low-cost fuel, so tax on aviation fuel for transatlantic flights will not happen for a generation, if ever.

"Emissions from intra-EU flights should be brought into the EU emissions trading scheme at the earliest possible opportunity," says the subcommittee's report. This judgement is not just the result of a few politicians spending too long in the ivory tower of a committee room, it is a symptom of the way thinking is going this side of the Atlantic. The airlines should decide how they are going to placate the environmental gods, because if they do not decide on the form of sacrifices, it will be decided for them.

Source: Flight International