Nerdy Notes: Green, With a Little Black and Blue

Beginning in 2012, the European Union will require that airliners participate in the world’s largest Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).  The consequences will be drastic.  While the environment is sure to benefit, society may not be.

An Emissions Trading Scheme—which you may have heard referred to as “cap and trade”—is a program to limit greenhouse gas emissions.  The program allots a certain number of “credits” to industries which produce greenhouse gasses, such as carbon dioxide.  Each credit is equivalent to a certain number of tons of emissions each year.  If an industry needs to exceed that number, it has to pay for additional credits.  It buys these credits from other businesses and industries—those which don’t need all of their credits.  In this manner, the more you pollute, the more you pay, and the less you pollute, the richer you get.  At least on paper, it seems like a good plan.

Many nations and groups of nations have emissions trading schemes in place.  More complex arrangements exist between nations.

In 2012, the European Union will begin imposing ETS limits on aviation.  Airlines will have to report their total greenhouse gas emissions yearly, and will have to comply with the caps on total output.  If they go over, they will have to buy additional credits from other industries.

The EU has attempted to make the imposition of limits as slight as possible.  By the end of 2012, they hope to reduce emissions to 97% of 2005 levels, and by the end of 2013, to 95%.  That would be fine if aviation didn’t grow, but it does—and quickly.  It is expected that aviation levels will have risen to 130% of their 2005 levels by 2013.  To grow by 30% but reduce emissions by 5% is an incredible challenge.

That challenge is compounded for international carriers by the manner in which the EU has chosen to calculate its emissions caps.  Any airline which flies within, into, or out of the European Union has to report its total annual carbon emissions, and has to calculate how close it has come to reaching the imposed cap based on that number.  For an airline flying just within Europe, this might seem fair—a flight from London to Rome is entirely within the European Union, so one-hundred percent of the emissions should be counted towards the ETS cap.

International airlines are crying foul.  An airline flying from New York—or even Los Angeles—to Paris should not, they say, have to report its total emissions, because so much of the flight takes place outside of Europe.  The airlines don’t necessarily object to the cap-and-trade restrictions within Europe, but they feel it is unfair—if not illegal—for the European Union to impose restrictions based on airlines’ performances while over the Atlantic Ocean or even the midwest United States.

The EU rebuts this view by arguing that greenhouse gasses are not localized occurrences.  Gasses emitted into the upper atmosphere—such as by airplanes—are not going to hang out over one location.  They will travel, affecting global warming everywhere.

By some estimates, the EU’s emissions trading scheme will have severely harmful impacts on aviation, on the order of five-billion dollars of added expense in the first year.  It’s quite likely that this will have a secondary impact which is beneficial to the environment: it will deter airlines from flying there.  That, however, will be harmful to the airlines, as well as to the millions of travelers who depend on frequent airline service around the globe.

As of November, 2011, the EU shows no signs of wavering in its determination that all airlines must report their total greenhouse gas emissions yearly if they wish to fly into Europe.  It would not be surprising if ticket prices rise sharply in the near future.  That five-billion dollars is going to have to come from somewhere!

Editor’s Note: This post was written by Mark Jacobs, an editor at The Jet Fuel Review.  He is an Aviation major, but the left side of his brain is an avid writer.  Mark is a sophomore and will be working a few hours as a tutor in the Writing Center in the 2011-2012 school year.

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