Europe's plan to hold aviation accountable for its part in global warming has, as expected, come up against stiff opposition.

Even at its outset, 2007 promised to be a year of both committee showdown and moral high ground for European lawmakers charged with making the world's airlines pay to pollute. And it is living up to that early promise.

The European Commission late last year launched its vision to impose charges on foreign and domestic carriers flying between European airports from 2011, and a year later on all flights arriving at or departing from any airport within the 27 member states.

Why? It is all part of the European Union's bid to include aviation in the world's largest carbon trading market and it believes that for mitigation measures to work effectively, the system has to apply to US airlines as well as all others. Not surprisingly, the plan has come under attack

growth of emissions in eu 


The USA immediately hit back, condemning the idea of forcing its airlines to participate, and accusing EU member states of extreme unilateralism. High-level US officials warned of likely sanctions through Europe wilfully contravening legal obligations agreed under the 1944 Chicago Convention - one of the main treaties that sets out the fundamental framework for global air transport - in addition to any other bilateral air transport agreements it cared to mention.

The bigger picture

Despite contributing relatively little to global warming so far, international aviation is forecast for continued spectacular growth. That growth, however, will outstrip many of the improvements in fuel burn technologies that the aviation industry can deliver in time. This is due mainly to a lack of any obvious alternative to jet fuel appearing in the near future.

A growth industry such as aviation results in a parallel growth in the amount of carbon dioxide it releases into the environment. Europe therefore believes that aviation and its effect on the environment should be contained through making airlines trade in carbon credits with other industries that can more easily reduce their respective carbon footprints - and begin to steadily reduce the overall amount of greenhouse gases generated by human activity.

air traffic fuel burn in europe 

The last thing US airlines want, however, is any negative impact on a historically low-margin business with minimal pricing power.

Europe also faces conflicting pressure - on the one hand driving the green agenda, while on the other attempting to liberalise air traffic agreements between states and regions to increase aviation competition and bring down prices.

The recently signed EU-US liberalised transatlantic agreement Open Skies could create 72,000 jobs across the USA and the EU and boost transatlantic traffic by 26 million passengers over five years, generating as much as €12 billion ($16 billion) in economic benefits on both sides of the Atlantic.

Europe, however, remains adamant that the move to include aviation in its existing emissions trading scheme will resist any legal challenge, but even at home it is facing opposition.

The European Parliament, together with Europe's transport ministers, needs to pass the scheme into law, although the early signs are that those elected to represent Europe's citizens are not impressed with its limited scope.

Environmentalists are not happy either, accusing the EC of simply ticking items on a reluctant industry's wish list and, somewhat perversely, of creating a system that could generate massive windfall profits for airlines.

A starting point

What will be critical, however, is the ongoing work on airlines' environmental impact by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, which has been considering the issue of aviation emissions since 1998.

At the last ICAO assembly in 2004, the 189 member countries agreed on a move to incorporate international aviation into existing trading schemes, such as that established by the Europeans. Progress has been slow, however.

Many in the aviation industry believe ICAO should be the starting point to establish an international structure and legal framework that effectively embraces environmental challenges - hence the alarm with which the EC's unilateral move to develop a multilateral option has been greeted.

Reciprocal trading

When ICAO's Committee on Aviation and Environment Protection met in February to present its guidance on emissions trading schemes ready for the next ICAO general assembly in September, it recommended that such reciprocal trading agreements were implemented only on the basis of consent between member states.

Europe's controversial plan again came under fire from both the USA and developing countries at a recent ICAO environment meeting at its Montreal headquarters - a prelude to September's meeting, which will thrash out exactly how to apply market-based measures.

A top EC official, however, insisted that its move was fully in accordance with previous ICAO resolutions, saying: "If we fail it will be a collective failure for the aviation community and it will be impossible to explain to the public why aviation has failed it."

Source: Flight International