AIN Blog: Europe’s Leadership on GHG Emissions Leaves Sour Taste with Aviation

 - October 18, 2011, 10:11 AM
European ETS
Governments around the world continue to resist EU efforts to address the aviation industry's greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo: Fotolia)

Have you ever wondered why we keep putting off for tomorrow what we can do today, particularly when it comes to the issue of, yes—I’ll say it—global warming? Quite apart from the flat-earth crowd, the people who believe the overwhelming scientific evidence tend to acknowledge a need to do something about this existential threat. But, particularly here in the U.S., we continue to buy gas-guzzling cars, pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles, all for the sake of comfort, or status, or some weird need to project machismo.

Conversely, to their credit, aircraft engine and airframe manufacturers have reacted to customer calls for fuel efficiency, albeit all in the name of cost savings and, by extension, profits. The problem remains, however, that we simply don’t have the time to let the free market take care of the problem. If we don’t do something fairly dramatic now, according to most scientists steeped in the subject, we’ll reach a sort of tipping point at which nothing will stop the cascade into what reasonable people would consider a natural disaster.

Still, as I watch how much of the global community has reacted to the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme, I can’t help but think economics will always trump any impulse to simply do the right thing when it comes to this issue. Granted, the argument from organizations such as the Air Transport Association—that the EU’s unilateral effort violates the Chicago Convention—might eventually hold water in a court of law. But for the U.S. Congress to introduce a bill that would render illegal airlines’ participation in the ETS simply seems draconian, if not shameful.

ETS detractors tend to overlook the point that the European Union has stated clearly for several years that it will happily exempt non-European operators from the scheme, if they stood subject to an equivalent program in their own countries. So, really, the only reason for Europe’s unilateral position lies with the fact that no one else will act. Europe finds itself with no choice but to implement ETS for aviation (having done so for other industries several years ago) because of its legally binding commitments to the Kyoto Treaty—an agreement that the U.S. steadfastly chose to ignore. Meanwhile, the U.S. and others argue that action on emissions must happen multilaterally through ICAO, and yet they have consistently blocked concerted action through that channel.

Sadly, it appears the world won’t soon agree on a comprehensive plan to stem global warming. Therefore, any effort to do so will have to come piecemeal, in the form of such controversial policies as ETS. Instead of vilifying it, we should applaud the effort. Unfortunately, we simply don’t appear ready to make the sacrifice.