Up in the Air

The EU is learning the hard way that the way to make friends at climate negotiations is to support the Kyoto Protocol and its obligatory emissions reductions, and the way to make enemies is to actually do something to reach Kyoto Protocol targets. The EU’s Aviation Directive is a proposal to include the carbon emissions associated with international aviation flights under its emission trading scheme (ETS), to start in January next year. And it has met with opposition from China, the U.S., Japan, and dozens of other countries, not to mention a suit by U.S. Airlines and their trade association in the European Court of Justice, set to be decided on December 21 (A preliminary opinion from the court has already indicated that it thinks the Directive is legal). Even the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), which has been the most vocal proponent of strong climate agreements since their member states are literally drowning into the sea due to climate change, called on the EU to stop the law because it will “detract tourists [from raising] travel costs . . . Anything that raises costs means people are not likely to do it in these stringent economic times, and that means it will impact negatively on our economies.” I’m told AOSIS’s stance on the aviation issue was created not without internal disagreement by coalition’s members, which makes sense, because it is hard to coalesce with their hard-line position to reject any weak climate agreement that could not “safeguard [their] livelihoods and guarantee the survival of [their] nations.”

The opposition from OASIS and other developing countries to the EU Aviation Directive is shocking and sad, especially because it undermines their climate negotiation arguments in a number of ways, such as:

1) Saying that the Aviation Directive shouldn’t be done because it may have indirect economic costs is a lot like saying that no climate policy whatsoever should be done because it may have indirect economic costs. It is the same argument that climate deniers and climate policy blockers have been using for years—policies cost money, and thus they should not be done. It’ll probably cost a lot for the U.S. to join the Kyoto Protocol, so why should it do so during these stringent economic times?

Of course, the costs of climate change mitigation should be distributed under the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. But the extent to which the EU Directive would actually shift the mitigation costs the EU is responsible for onto developing countries is unclear. International air travel is expensive, and governments are already adding to airfare costs with airport fees and taxes. Half of my ticket price to Durban was paid to these taxes and fees. Is the marginal price hike caused by the Aviation Directive really going to be enough to cause shockwaves of economic turmoil throughout the international travel industry? Even if the marginal price hike indeed becomes prohibitive between, say, London and Fiji, then so too must the marginal price hike between New York and London, meaning less New Yorkers will fly to London and more New Yorkers will fly to non-European destinations like Fiji. The only tourists who can’t avoid the marginal price hike are the Europeans, and yet they seem to be the only ones supporting the Directive.

Furthermore, charging air passengers for their carbon emissions isn’t a new idea. Voluntary programs in place now allow passengers to donate to carbon offsets in amounts comparable to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by their flight. The Directive is essentially a carbon offset program, but a mandatory one. I don’t remember the nations of the world opposing carbon offsets when they were voluntary, but now they oppose them when they are mandatory? Is the lesson here that we should all work to mitigate our carbon footprint, but if you don’t really want to do so, then actually, don’t worry, you don’t have to?

2) Many argue that the EU program is jumping the gun on a global aviation emission-trading scheme to be coordinated by the International Civil Aviation Organization—that the EU program is a premature collection of regional carbon regulations when what we need is a global agreement. Oh wait, that sounds a lot like the Kyoto Protocol itself, which ideally should cover all major emitters in a common-but-differentiated manner, but in its current skeletal form basically only regulates the greenhouse gas emissions of the European countries (the only regulated parties that have indicated a commitment to a second Kyoto period past 2012). Developing countries, of course, have been strongly pushing for the continuation of this non-common and very differentiated skeletal Kyoto. So regional application of what should be a global regulation is okay when it’s Kyoto, but not okay when it’s the EU’s aviation program?

3) As of now, it seems that the EU is the only group of countries that might continue to have international, legally binding obligations to reduce carbon emissions past 2012, since all other Kyoto countries have basically acted in self interest and backed out of a second commitment period. It’s rather bittersweet, then, to reward the EU’s fortitude, selflessness, and commitment to global climate change mitigation by denying them a strong gun in their climate change arsenal.

4) Equity. One of the most invidious aspects of climate change is that its adverse impacts are regressive in nature—the poorest communities will be hit the hardest. In the negotiations, developing countries justifiably stress that their poor peoples will unjustifiably bear the brunt of the emissions actions of rich, developed countries. But these same poor communities are usually not the ones flying to and from Europe several times a year. The Aviation Directive makes those responsible for emissions directly pay for them. And those responsible are usually those with enough resources to afford airplane tickets in the first place.

The saddest part of this whole game is that aviation emission reductions could be a low-hanging fruit left rotting on the branch by a slow moving industry that up until now didn’t have the regulatory incentive to kick it into gear. Even at its own side event here at Durban touting the possibilities of biofuels in aviation, the International Civil Aviation Organization couldn’t hide that it has yet to design or implement any real emission reduction measures. Virgin Airlines’ Richard Branson agrees that biofuels are the future, and announced here at Durban the launch of a new website to make airlines’ access to biofuels even easier. With fuel costs accounting for up to 40% of airline operating costs, expanding fuel suppliers beyond the volatile fossil fuel market may end up being in the companies’ best interest anyway. And all the heat that airliners and countries placed on the EU could end up being hot air.