California and its allies join forces with Europe to break the Bush administration's intransigence on aviation emissions
Professor Dan Hamilton
There’s a big hole in the Kyoto Protocol: Airline emissions aren’t covered. This emission omission has officials in California and Europe worried, so each acted recently to plug the hole. In December, ministers from 27 different countries agreed to cap carbon emissions from aircraft flying to and from the European Union (EU). California joined a host of other US states and municipalities to petition the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to institute a similar system on all aircraft flying to and from American airports.
The new EU system, slated to go into effect in 2012, would cap carbon dioxide emissions for European and foreign airplanes alike, while allowing airlines to buy and sell pollution credits on the EU carbon market. The initiative is yet another signal of EU determination to tackle the climate change issue. EU governments agreed last spring to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 30% by 2020.
Not surprisingly, Europe’s airline industry is critical of these demands. While it has resigned itself to the prospect that some EU airline emissions scheme is inevitable, it warns about higher costs to passengers and makes the point that the EU could reduce emissions 12% simply by putting its single market under a single sky of air traffic control.
There are some big holes in the plan – big enough for an Airbus to fly through. Cost estimates vary wildly. Other pollutant emissions from airplanes – water vapour, contrails or nitrogen oxides – are not included. The cost implications for travellers are uncertain, but could result in fare increases ranging from 3 to 15 percent. The plan could undermine a groundbreaking US-EU deal to open transatlantic skies that promises roughly $7 billion worth of cost reductions and a boost in transatlantic travel by up to 24%. The pollution credit scheme could mean windfall profits for some companies and major losses for others. It is a unilateral approach to a global problem.
Undaunted, EU activists are pressing ahead, and have found American allies – not in Washington, but in California and a host of other states. The states have petitioned the EPA to impose a cap-and-trade system, similar to that of the EU, on domestic and foreign aircraft departing or landing at American airports.
This European-Californian pincer movement has raised the stakes in the battle both parties have been having with the Bush administration over global environmental regulation.
The Bush administration believes the EU scheme will prove unworkable, and has rejected such a system at home. It places its hopes on technology innovation and improved air traffic management and infrastructure. Federal officials have warned the Europeans that they risk breaking international law if they force non-European airlines into their system. The United States engineered an agreement among the majority of countries in the International Civil Aviation Organization, aviation's global rule-making body, against any unilateral actions – but that only energized the EU to press ahead. If the EU proceeds along its current path, the United States will almost certainly charge the EU with unfair trade practices before the World Trade Organization.
California and its partners, however, have rushed to Europe’s defence. California’s petition asserts that the right of countries to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from foreign aircraft operating within their airspace is consistent both with international law and obligations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
This new alliance has scrambled things quite a bit. In recent years, Europeans castigated the Bush administration’s unilateralism while extolling their own multilateralist virtues. This time, Washington is the multilateralist and Brussels the unilateralist – and California and its partners have come to Brussels’ aid.
The California-Europe one-two punch is breaking the mould of traditional diplomacy. Stymied by the Bush administration’s intransigence on climate change, countries and regions are bypassing Washington to form new partnerships. Last year, California and other US regions joined a number of EU countries to form the International Carbon Action Partnership charged with developing carbon markets through mandatory cap-and-trade systems. In November, a “Santa Barbara Consensus” advocating radical action to tackle climate change was released by a prominent group of European and American opinion leaders.
Activists on both sides of the Atlantic are hoping that their newfound partnership can set the stage for US action at home and abroad, should the policy door open in Washington following the November elections. They will be better able to walk through that door, however, if they use the time they have now to fix the flaws in their cap-and-trade plans for aviation.
Professor Dan Hamilton directs the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Washington, D.C., and is Executive Director of the American Consortium on EU Studies. He is the author of many works, including ‘The Transatlantic Economy 2008’ and ‘Deep Integration: How Transatlantic Markets are Leading Globalization’. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.