U.S. Steps Up Its Effort Against a European System of Fees on Airline Emissions

The United States has stepped up pressure to prevent Europe from charging foreign airlines for greenhouse gas emissions when they take off and land there.

Simon Dawson/Bloomberg News

In recent days, Canada, the United States and Mexico have urged a United Nations agency to intervene on the issue. Yet even as authorities in the United States seek to build support against the European system, some major carriers in the United States have started taking steps to comply with the rules, which take effect in 2012. Participating now will enable airlines to avoid paying most of the cost of permits for their carbon emissions for years to come.

The law, which European Union governments approved two years ago, represents the boldest attempt by Europe to push other parts of the world to adopt its standards for controlling greenhouse gases. It has prompted bitter criticism from the airline industry in Europe and abroad, especially from carriers in the United States.

Under the law, airlines would not be charged for 85 percent of the cost of permits needed to cover their emissions until the end of the decade. Still, compliance would cost the industry at least 2.4 billion euros, or about $3 billion, a year, according to the International Air Transport Association, a trade group. It said much of the cost would be passed on to travelers in higher ticket prices.

To supplement the initial allocation, airlines would be able to buy the additional permits they need directly from European Union governments or on so-called carbon markets, which are based largely in Europe. The business, also known as cap and trade, was worth about $140 billion last year.

Heavy industries like cement and steel have had to comply with cap and trade rules since 2005.

European Union authorities had been optimistic that President Obama would take a fresh look at the Bush administration’s opposition to the system.

But in recent days, the United States, Canada and Mexico have urged the International Civil Aviation Organization, an influential United Nations body, to pass a resolution stating that countries “seeking to implement an emissions trading system that applies to other contracting states’ aircraft operators” do so only “on the basis of mutual agreement.”

In a copy of the submission seen by The International Herald Tribune, the United States, Canada and Mexico acknowledged that pressure was increasing to establish international rules on aviation emissions.

But they said there was “no consensus on such a global approach at this time,” adding that disagreement remained among countries on “the application of one state’s emissions trading system to another state’s airlines.”

If agreed upon, the resolution would be nonbinding. But it would add to international pressure on Europe to at least delay the start of its system.

Julie Oettinger, an assistant administrator at the Federal Aviation Administration, said, “Our hope is that the language we provided can gain global acceptance, and serve as a middle option that is acceptable to the European Union as well as countries that oppose inclusion of their carriers” in the European system.

Such resolutions “have a political weight behind them,” Ms. Oettinger said by e-mail Thursday.

Connie Hedegaard, the European Union commissioner for climate action, said on Thursday that the United States had effectively demanded a “veto right over what measures states can take to limit the climate impacts of aviation.”

That, Ms. Hedegaard said, was “obviously a recipe for continued global inaction and not what we need to move this agenda forward in a positive and constructive way.”

She said it was wrong for the United States “to seek to put up barriers for others” when it had not yet even enacted any legislation of its own.

Ms. Hedegaard added that changing the start date would require the law to be revised by European Union legislators.

Other officials said they were determined to proceed with the plan because emissions from airlines had shot up in the last 20 years as access to air transport had spread. International aviation was left out of the Kyoto Protocol, while most other industrial sectors in developed countries had been included.

Ms. Oettinger of the F.A.A. said the Obama administration “is committed to addressing climate change, including emissions from international aviation.” She said the United States was seeking agreement at the International Civil Aviation Organization “on a more ambitious global goal” of carbon-neutral growth by 2020, using 2005 as the baseline.

Participation by United States carriers has always been critical to the system’s success, since without them, European carriers could argue that they faced too much of a competitive disadvantage.

“If European airlines were alone in the scheme, they would fight it tooth and nail,” said David Henderson, a spokesman for the Association of European Airlines.

United, American, Continental and other airlines have submitted monitoring plans to British authorities and had these approved, and are expected to apply for the free allocation, according to European Union officials.

At the same time, United, Continental and American are challenging the system at the High Court in London. Led by the Air Transport Association of America, the airlines complained that the measures were adopted without the agreement of other countries and were contrary to the principle that countries had sovereignty over their airspace. The airlines also said the measures constituted an improper tax or charge.

In May, the High Court announced that it would refer the case to the European Court of Justice, the bloc’s highest tribunal, on the grounds that the challenge raised questions about the wider European Union law.


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