Aviation emissions: another climate tragedy in the making?Posted by on Mar 13, 2012
Several months into the European Union aviation emissions battle, it’s still not clear who will blink first: the EU or the 20-odd countries lined up against it. Regardless of how the sides have tried to point fingers and posture, this is a fight that isn’t really about right and wrong; rather it’s a sad story about how hard it is for people to move beyond their immediate vested interests. If this is stage one of the climate change battle, what lies ahead could be depressing indeed.
First the facts. After multiple international consultations the EU announced its intention to include aviation in its Emissions Trading System (ETS) from January 2012; and in December 2011 the European Court of Justice upheld an earlier ruling that the plan does not contravene any existing law, in a case brought by American and Chinese airlines. This cleared the way for the scheme to proceed.
It’s not complex. If a flight starts, stops or lands in the EU, the operator must have credits related to the CO2 emitted for that flight. In the first year 85 per cent of the credits required would be given away for free, meaning that operators are required to possess 15 per cent of the remaining credits needed. Estimates of cost range from a few cents to less than two dollars per flight passenger. There are no exceptions – every airline, every nationality, whether for freight or people, must be covered.
The scheme is also not a surprise. The EU’s ETS has been in existence since 2005 and the EU has long cited aviation as a target sector for action in its climate change strategy. Indeed, the parties agreed as early as the signing of the Kyoto Protocol that the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) should develop and implement a sectoral approach to mitigating airline emissions. But after years of consultations, no agreement emerged. The EU got tired of waiting and, having committed to its climate change strategy, decided to act first.
In doing so, the EU has raised a strong torrent of ire. No one is happy about the scheme. The Chinese have complained about the high costs imposed on its airlines, and have forbidden their airlines from participating. The US tried to complain that the scheme contravened open skies airline agreements between the EU and US. The ICAO complained about the EU’s going back on having agreed to let an airline agreement come about by consensus.
Interestingly, almost all the complaints start by agreeing with the objective of controlling airline emissions. Virtually every airline claims to want to do more to reduce emissions; every country acknowledges that this is a priority. They just have problems with the EU’s methodology. How legitimate are their complaints?
On the issue of unilateral action: there is a good argument that the EU already waited long enough. After all, negotiations have been going on since 1997. And if we wait till a global deal is reached, we’ll likely waiting for many more years, just like the wait for a post-Kyoto (post-Copenhagen, Cancun, and Durban) agreement. Politically, how long is long enough before action is warranted?
The scientific answer is clear. The IEA (International Energy Agency) estimates that without action, in the next five years, countries risk locking in a high-carbon pathway that will greatly increase the likelihood of irreversible and dangerous climate change. More to the point, the airline industry is particularly prone to lock-in effects due to the long investment horizons for airplanes and other infrastructure. Waiting for a deal could well lock in higher emissions equipment and technologies that would negate the effects of even diligent action later on.
As to whether the EU has the right to act on its own airspace: by any international agreement, they do, just like they do for setting quality, health and safety, and technical standards for countless products and services traded in the EU. Countries are acting on their own territory, even for climate change. China is in process of starting a carbon trading system, and multiple systems already exist in the US.
As for the timing, it’s true the scheme adds costs, perhaps at a time when many companies can't afford it. Yet, we, collectively, also can’t “afford” the risks of global warming. Carbon pricing is a universally-acknowledged first step to paying for the future costs of damage to the environment. Someone has to bite first. And it’s not the airlines, as they would claim. The energy sector in the EU has had to abide by this principle since 2005. More sectors will eventually be roped in, but none soon enough. If there is a criticism, it should be that the EU has not acted sooner, or on more sectors.
Climate change is the archetypal tragedy of the commons, in which everyone hangs back on action while thinking that they can free-ride on the good deeds of others. Except, if everyone thinks like this, no one will act. The EU has acted first to try to turn around a market failure. It will be interesting to see whether the free-riders actually allow a good deed to go unpunished.