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Capping Aviation Emissions

Author: Toni Johnson
November 16, 2007

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Air industry experts have noted that air carriers are becoming “pariahs in Europe” (Aviation Daily) for their perceived contribution to climate change. “The aviation industry is just not representing itself properly or effectively,” said one communications strategist (AP). Although aviation represents a relatively small portion of total greenhouse gas emissions—about 3 percent of total man-made emissions—some experts believe emissions at higher altitudes have a disproportionate greenhouse effect. The European Parliament voted this week on legislation to add airlines (IHT) to the European Union’s greenhouse gas trading scheme. The legislation proposes to cap flights at EU airports by 2011—rather than the 2012 originally proposed—while allowing air carriers to buy and sell emissions credits on the Europe’s carbon market, which is described in this Backgrounder. “We want a worldwide system as soon as possible,” said EU lawmaker Peter Liese who supported the bill.

The Brussels vote comes as negotiations (TodayOnline) on a final report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change proceed in Spain. The 25-page report, condensing scientific findings on climate change, is due November 17 in anticipation of talks next month on aiming at a climate change accord to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol. The vote also comes as airlines struggle (Times of London) with record-high fuel prices and slowing demand. A climate change report from the international investment firm Lehman Brothers argues that with a “limited ability to pass on additional costs” to customers, including air travel in the cap-and-trade scheme, will “likely necessitate capacity reductions” by airlines but could also spur improved efficiencies (PDF). And the plan could end up a “test bed” (CQ) for wider carbon controls in the United States because U.S. carriers would be forced to join the EU program long before Congress is likely to implement anything similar.

The airline industry opposes the plan. Association of European Airlines’ spokesperson, FranÁoise Humbert, called the proposal “so extreme that it’s got the potential to completely kill the competitiveness of the industry” (Euractiv). And the proposal could prompt a bitter trade fight with countries, such as the United States and China. C. Boyden Gray, U.S. ambassador to the EU, says the U.S. government doesn’t think “Europe has the authority to do it” (AP) noting the UN’s jurisdiction over international aviation. The proposal has also been criticized by environmental advocates for exempting small planes, including business jets, a growing portion of the industry.

The emissions plan may add to worries for the financial viability of the new mega-jet from Airbus, the A380. The company says the new plane emits half of the EU’s carbon dioxide target for new cars. But the Economist contends “simple calculations” show riding in the Airbus is “the equivalent of more than six cars” for each passenger.” And one Telegraph article notes the company’s emissions calculations assume 525 seats and a full plane when in fact it may be planning fewer seats to accommodate roomier business and first class areas. Hugo Kimber of the Carbon Consultancy says aviation’s greenhouse gas impact is often considered in relation to global emissions, but disparate measurements for individual flights—which could vary as much as 300 percent (PDF) for the same flight—do not help consumers to decide which routes and flights emit less.

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