European high court backs airline emission rules

New European regulations will help limit greenhouse gas emissions from aviation.

Cap and trading regulations to take effect next month

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY —Starting next month, airlines flying in and out of European Union countries will have to comply with new mandatory regulations aimed at capping and gradually reducing the growing impact of greenhouse gas emissions from aviation by 5 percent through 2020.

The European law holds airlines accountable for emissions and sets up a carbon cap and trading system. Aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions, rising 3 percent to 4 percent per year.  Until now, the sector has escaped regulations that would require emissions reductions.

This is an important victory for the planet. US aircraft emissions account for nearly half of worldwide carbon dioxide from aircraft; that amount is expected to triple by mid-century,” said Martin Wagner, managing attorney at Earthjustice. “But the US airline industry has fought to avoid playing its part in preventing runaway climate change. With US airlines shirking their duty, Europe has had to take the lead. The airline industry should now pressure the US government to level the playing field by imposing equivalent restrictions on aircraft pollution in the United States,” Wagner said.

The European Union law requires airlines flying in and out of EU airports to report their emissions once a year, based on a formula that factors in fuel use and payload. For the first year, the cap on emissions is set at 97 percent of the 2004-2006 baseline amount. After 2012, the cap drops down to 95 percent of the baseline through 2020.

For emissions above the cap, airlines will be able to buy carbon credits on existing markets, either within the airline industry or even from other industries, according to Pamela Campos, A Colorado-based attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund specializing in clean air issues.

“It’s up to the airlines to decide how to reduce emissions,” Campos said. “If they reduce them enough, they  can sell credits.”

Three U.S. airlines — United/Continental and American — and their trade association, Air Transport Association of America (now known as Airlines for America), challenged the legality of the  Europe’s aviation emissions trading system, but this week, the Court of Justice of the European Union affirmed that the EU law is fully compliant with international law.

The U.S. Airline group threatened additional legal action to delay or block the regulations.

“Today’s court decision further isolates the EU from the rest of the world and will keep in place a unilateral scheme that is counterproductive to concerted global action on aviation and climate change,” the association said in a press release. The full statement is online here.

But environmental advocates said the European Court ruling is thorough and validates the regulations as a useful tool to address aviation emissions.

The Court’s finding reinforces the EU’s stance on finding a cost-effective way of addressing the aviation’s significant and growing contribution to climate change,” said Tim Johnson, director of the Aviation Environmental Federation. “We hope that the focus will now shift away from obstructing its progress on the eve of its introduction and examine how such regional initiatives can form the building blocks of a global agreement.”

By most estimates, the end cost to travelers will be minimal. According to Campos, one of the most recent studies by Deutsche Bank concluded that, at most, the law will raise ticket prices by $1 to $5, depending on the distance of the flight.

Campos said the focus now shifts from the courts to the political arena, where U.S. lawmakers have introduced legislation to make U.S. airlines exempt from the EU regulation.

The hope among environmental advocates is that the new rule will be a first step toward developing a full global framework for addressing aviation emissions.

“It is high time airlines actually live up to their green claims, and comply with the EU law, which will cut pollution and spark low-carbon innovation,” said Annie Petsouk, internationa counsel for the EDP. “Americans invented the airplane, now it’s time for us to create climate-friendly skies. The EU’s leadership challenges U.S. airlines to take charge and deliver to the flying public clean and green air travel.”