EU resists pressure on airline emission scheme

There is no doubt that European standards for commerce and industry have had a profound influence across the world. Europe’s standards have become global standards, if only because anyone wishing to sell their goods on European markets must respect them. Emission limits for motor vehicles, for instance, is one sector where EU legislation has had a worldwide effect in cutting fuel consumption and emissions.

There are high stakes when the EU seeks to introduce environmental standards with global reach, such as the carbon emissions trading scheme for all air services into European airports. The European airline industry is scared that the scheme will provoke retaliation from countries like the US, India, China and Russia, while Airbus is worried by China’s suspension of orders for new aircraft.

Airlines and industry have been stepping up the pressure to persuade the Commission to soften its position. They have been lobbying Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas, who seems desperate to avoid a trade conflict, but EU governments and the European Commission still insist that the plan will come in on schedule, in April 2013.

There seems to be more international solidarity in opposing the EU measures than in introducing measures to cut emissions, given that 23 countries, including the United States, Russia, China and India, agreed at a Moscow meeting in February to retaliate against the EU if it stuck to its plans.

Europe should stand firm, if only to encourage progress on that international agreement which was promised in the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation way back in 2004 and reaffirmed in an ICAO framework agreement in 2010, whose aim was to limit total CO2 emissions from aircraft despite the anticipated increase in air travel. Aviation currently accounts for about 3 per cent of global emissions.

Last week eight Chinese and two Indian airlines refused to provide 2011 emissions data to the European Commission, it seems because the Chinese government has expressly forbidden its airlines to co-operate, but apparently another 1,200 carriers have complied. These governments have accused the EU of taking extra-territorial decisions, but one might say that of all pollutants CO2 is the most global in its impact. When China is opening a new coal-fired power station every week, a limit on aircraft emissions seems a modest measure. And anyway, the EU trading scheme would only affect services into Europe and would be absorbed into an international agreement once that could be agreed.

So how much will Europe’s scheme cost each passenger? Estimates seem to vary from €3 (the price of a cup of coffee says Climate Change Commissioner Connie Hedegaard) to €40 or more. Some airlines already impose a small charge on the ticket to prepare the way. In the longer term everything will depend on how generous the emission allowances will be for individual airlines. There is no doubt that the measure will further persuade the aerospace industry on the need to improve performance, although it pales into insignificance beside the escalating cost of aviation fuel.