New dogfight rages above Atlantic

Civil aviation has always been a contentious arena, with cut-throat business practices and a great deal of bad blood. And it could be about to get nastier.

While concerns about the environmental impact of flying grow, the European Union is about to extend its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) to airlines. By 2012, all airlines in Europe will have to buy emissions permits by auction to cover their carbon footprints. There’s the issue: all airlines in Europe. That doesn’t just mean European airlines, and almost inevitably, it’s brought the EU into conflict with American interests.

The European Commissioner for Transport, Jacques Barrot (the subject of an upcoming interview in The Engineer), has threatened that if American airlines don’t subscribe to the ETS, or if the US doesn’t institute a similar scheme, then the EU will curtail or even withdraw their Transatlantic flying rights. The US government, which refuses to allow airlines to join emissions trading schemes, stands in the way.

This raises all sorts of issues. The aviation industry always tries to downplay the concerns over carbon dioxide emissions, stressing — correctly — that the actual level of emissions from air travel are relatively small, and it’s the rate of increase that’s the concern. However, while concern for the environment is a motivating factor for the ETS, it probably isn’t the main reason for Barrot’s insistence on the US joining the scheme. That has more to do with economics. The ETS could add up to £13 to the cost of a return flight, with this rising as the proportion of permits bought, rather than awarded, increases. And if American airlines don’t have to add this cost to their tickets, they’ll be undercutting their rivals by a considerable amount. Barrot is also tying his argument into opposition to the increasingly strict security measures that the US is insisting on for Transatlantic flights.

Despite this politicking over competitiveness and security, linking the cost of transport to its environmental impact is laudable, and should act as a spur to all sorts of technological innovation — lower-emission aero-engines and more efficient air traffic control, for example. All the candidates in the upcoming US election are more concerned about climate change — and more amenable to reducing emissions — than the Bush White House, so it might be next year before any progress is made, but the signs are hopeful.

The point is that environmental concerns are by their nature global. While every region has to play their part, and ‘They (whether it’s the US, China, India or the people next door) are doing nothing so why should we’ is no argument at all, it’s clear that the effectiveness of any mechanism is greatly reduced if only one region uses it. The EU is right to throw its weight around. The New World can still learn a thing or two from Old Europe.

Stuart Nathan

Special projects editor