Green War in the Skies: Can Europe Make U.S. Planes Pay for Pollution?

The next battleground in the global fight over climate change is in the air, as Europe is asking international flights to pay for their carbon emissions.

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Planes flying over the North Atlantic, where the Arctic and Caribbean air currents collide, are generally accustomed to heavy turbulence. But there is something new happening in that airspace that is creating profound turbulence on the ground: The European Union is now counting those planes' greenhouse gas emissions.

The aviation industry is about to be added to the thousands of industrial sites subject to emission limits under the Kyoto Protocol. For the first time, U.S. and other foreign airlines will be asked to pay for their contribution to climate change, shaking up the globally intertwined aviation industry like never before, and threatening a trade war in the skies.

American air carriers are fighting back. Led by three U.S. airlines--United, Continental and American, as well as the Air Transport Association--they have filed a legal challenge at the European Court of Justice. An initial opinion on the case by the court's top judge will be issued on October 6. A final decision is expected early next year.

WHAT'S THE TRUE COST OF FLYING?

More than any other industry, aviation reminds us of a fundamental fact of climate change: Greenhouse gases emitted in one country wind up in our shared atmosphere. The trans-Atlantic air corridor is traversed daily by scores of flights to and from Europe and the United States, making this the first trade-related dispute over how to deal with the vast costs of climate change and testing the ability of governments to restrain emissions beyond their borders.

Aviation now contributes some three to four percent to the atmospheric load of greenhouse gases, according to the EU, and it is expected to grow exponentially over the next 40 years. New science suggests there may be an additional burden to the atmosphere from airplane's disruption of cloud patterns, which could be intensifying the greenhouse effect.

Take a flight tomorrow, say, from New York to Beijing or San Francisco, and no one will be counting your greenhouse gas emissions. Take that same plane, though, from New York to London (770 kilograms of carbon emitted) or Paris (834 kilograms), or any other European city, and the airlines would have to file those emission allowances.

The EU asserts that the cost of compliance would be no more than $6-$10 per ticket, depending on the flight's duration. The International Air Transport Association claims if airlines pass on the entire cost of allowances to customers, it could add up to $45 per ticket. But this is haggling over price. The larger question before the European Court of Justice is: How do we make laws about greenhouse gases that travel across country boundaries?

Next page: Who Owns the Skies?

Presented by

Mark Schapiro is a senior correspondent with the Center for Investigative Reporting and a long-time investigative journalist.

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