November 7th, 2011 by

Credit: Herry Lawford

There’s a bit of a power struggle going on in Europe. Well, not in Europe exactly — more like several thousand feet above it.

You see, next year, the European Union will be adding aviation to its Emissions Trading System (ETS). Created in 2005, the ETS works to reduce greenhouse gas emissions using a cap and trade system. Similar programs are being developed around the world, including in California. But this will be the first time aviation has entered the mix on such a wide-reaching scale.

It makes sense; air travel produces a lot of carbon. A single flight from Phoenix, Arizona, to London, England (a flight of about 5,200 miles), for instance, will produce around 1,700 pounds of CO2. Since the institution of the EU ETS, carbon emissions from many other sectors have declined, but those from the aviation industry have doubled.

The new rules will impose a cap on the CO2 emissions from all domestic and international flights to or from any airport in the European Union. Airlines that exceed the cap will have to buy permits for their emissions. Those that adopt methods to keep their emissions below the cap (switching to more efficient fuel, for instance) will be able to sell their remaining allowances. In fairness, the cap is not particularly low. According to Forbes, it will be set at 97 percent of the average aviation emissions from 2004 to 2006.

What would this mean for passengers? That depends on how much of the cost the individual airlines decide to pass on to us. The International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) numbers don’t look particularly frightening, estimating an increase from $2 to $20. Personally, I’m fine with paying a bit more to offset the emissions my flight will produce. A great deal of information and research is available on the ETS site itself, so feel free to learn more about it here.

The EU says it is within its right to establish such a system because there have been no successful efforts to create an effective system for decreasing global CO2 emissions despite the UN’s resolution to do so back in 1997. Unfortunately, a number of airlines don’t see it that way. Companies from 26 countries are supporting a resolution to exempt all non-European airlines from the system. Of course, this would defeat the entire purpose of the program and do nothing to address the continued rise in air travel emissions, but those don’t seem to be among the companies’ main concerns.

I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see where the controversy leads, but so far it looks like the EU is sticking to its guns.