Clean air combat

Passengers queue at London's Heathrow airport.

KAI RYSSDAL: The price of carbon dioxide was up today on the European Climate Exchange. About nine Euros per metric ton. The exchange is just one way Europe's trying to get a handle on global warming. Putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions companies are allowed to make. Regulation's the other big way the E.U. is confronting climate change. And the latest rules have prompted a heated exchange with the United States. The plan is to force airlines to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. Any carrier that flies in or out of European airspace will be affected.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Stephen Beard reports.


PROTESTER: Two hundred thousand people die from climate change every year! No third runway at Heathrow!

STEPHEN BEARD: Members of a militant new group called Plane Stupid protest against further growth at London's Heathrow Airport. Usually such protesters are only concerned about noise pollution. But this group, led by John Stewart, is also worried about a bigger threat:

JOHN STEWART: Plane Stupid is a group of environmentalists who are concerned about aviation being the fastest growing contributor to climate change. And we want to do something about that.

So does the European Commission in Brussels. It's drafted a plan to cap the carbon emissions of all airlines that fly in and out of the E.U. If carriers want to emit more, they'd have to buy carbon permits under the E.U.'s carbon trading scheme. Caroline Lucas is a key member of the European Parliament's environmental committee:

CAROLINE LUCAS: What we have with aviation is a means of transport that is enormously damaging from a climate point of view. And I think it's incredibly urgent that we take action now to actually begin to reduce that impact.

Aircraft are very damaging, she says, because they emit their gases high up in the atmosphere where they do most harm. And along with CO2 they emit even more damaging nitrogen oxides:

LUCAS: We're talking about a range of other emissions from aviation which, it has been calculated, are between two and four times more damaging to the climate than CO2, carbon dioxide emissions, alone.

Air traffic is likely to double over the next decade. But if the E.U. approves the plan, that growth could be cut. After all, buying emission permits could add as much as $50 to the price of a ticket. That would hit the low-cost carriers hard.

It's grossly unfair, says David Soskind of CheapFlights.com. Aviation may be the fastest growing source of carbon emissions, but it's nowhere near the biggest:

DAVID SOSKIND: Flights only account for 3 percent of global warming. So it's a very tiny sliver.

Power generation accounts for 35 percent. He also says the additional fees would hit tourism and penalize some of the poorest countries on the planet:

SOSKIND: Countries like Sri Lanka, where the average income per capita is barely a thousand dollars per annum. You take away the tourists, you destroy those people's livelihoods. Is that something that you really want to do?

In this terse statement the Air Transport Association of America has fired off its objection to the plan:

AAAA STATEMENT: Non-European countries, including the U.S., believe that the unilateral imposition of emissions trading requirements violates international law.

But supporters of the European plan insist it's legal for countries to regulate their own airspace as long as all carriers are treated equally. And it's time, they say, that a privileged industry that pays no tax on its fuel shoulder some of the cost of combating climate change.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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