Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Update on Airline Pollution Wars…

A couple of weeks ago, I posted on U.S. airline efforts to kill the European plan to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution from air traffic (see it here).  At the time, I thought I had seen the whole story.  But a little more digging showed me how desperate our airlines (and our government!) are to assure that nothing will happen to limit GHG pollution from air travel.

Air travel is the fastest growing transportation segment
You may recall that air traffic accounts for 2-3% of global GHG pollution.  That doesn’t sound like much, at first.  But air travel is the fastest-growing transportation segment in the world, with GHG emissions expected to increase 150% by 2030.  And air travel – per passenger-mile – is by far the most polluting form of travel.  As an example, air travel from New York to Washington generates 3.5 times more GHG pollution than the train, and takes much longer door to door (read more here).

Because they know this, the 27-member-nation EU is preparing as of 2012 to require all flights in, into or out of Europe to generate no more GHG pollution than was generated on average in 2005. Otherwise, polluters would have to purchase credits from companies that have succeeded in reducing their GHG pollution.  U.S. airlines have sued to kill the effort, and the U.S. government has actually sided with them. 

In 2004, air travel was 6 times bigger than in 1970
What could the U.S. government be thinking, you wonder?  Well, the administration has called it "the wrong way to pursue the right objective." The U.S. argues Europe should pursue its goals through the United Nations' aviation agency.

That sounds reasonable, right?  Aviation is global, and many flights travel between countries and over oceans.  The UN agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), would seem to be the right place to go for airline GHG pollution limits.  But the Europeans have argued that the ICAO has been stuck in the mud for years, so they’re moving ahead on their own.

I wondered about this, so I checked it out.  What I got was a lesson in how to entirely block all progress anywhere, in the name of making progress everywhere. Here’s what I learned:

In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol assigned responsibility for reducing aviation greenhouse gas emissions to the ICAO and its 190 member nations.  After seven years of deadlocked negotiations, the ICAO gave up, and handed responsibility partially back to each nation.  But debates raged as to whether any country was free to impose its own GHG pollution limits on international flights, given the global nature of the airline trade.  Europe wanted to proceed on its own; the U.S. wanted its air carriers to be free to pollute unless a global deal could be worked out. (Read more here.)

NY to DC: train gets you door to door twice as fast, and saves 176 lbs CO2 per traveler
But to call the U.S. position cynical doesn’t quite capture the reality.  Our representatives insisted that every single one of the 190 member nations would have to agree to any GHG pollution limitations anywhere.  If they didn’t, their airlines would be able to fly into Europe or anywhere else, and thumb their noses at pollution regulations.  This unfair advantage would, of course, kill every pollution control effort anywhere on the earth.

Finally, after 13 years of talking, in 2010, the ICAO reached an agreement in Montreal that the State Department hailed as “an unprecedented global commitment … to limit and reduce carbon emissions from international aviation.”  The State Department press corps called it “the historic agreement … on climate change.”  I wondered.  Ominously, the press release hinted “that further work is necessary to define the path forward on implementation.”  Hmm.  Lofty goals, but no teeth, I wondered?

No.  Not even lofty goals.  Basically, the ICAO set targets of 2% reductions in GHG pollution only after 2020.  NO POLLUTION LIMITS WHATSOEVER BEFORE 2020, while pollution can grow unchecked. And even this weak-kneed declaration had no teeth in it.  It was basically an agreement to keep on talking, which suited the U.S. airlines just fine.  Talk as long as you like, while we keep pumping out GHG pollution.

So the Europeans have gone ahead on their own.  But the U.S. airlines want them to go back into the ICAO torture chamber, where they are sure to do no harm for many years to come.

Incidentally, don’t look for reports about this lawsuit (underway right now) on the nightly news.  After all, Casey Anthony has just been acquitted, and our news outlets will have to spend many hours “analyzing” the verdict.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

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