7 Myths About the EU's Airline Emissions Plan

Unfortunately, the debate around the European program to control carbon pollution from aviation is heating up, with the U.S. "objecting", the U.S.-based airlines squawking, and the aviation industry boosters in the U.S. house trying to stop Europe for controlling pollution.

Of course, most airlines (U.S., European, and Chinese) would prefer not to have any system that controls their pollution so their claims of the sky falling aren't surprising. Sadly the debate hasn't focused on the fact that countries have a choice -- develop, implement, and enforce an equivalent program at home and the Europeans will allow their carriers to be excluded.

None of the governments that are grumbling about the European program have proposed an equivalent program. If they did it would be a completely different story. Instead, these countries are basically saying: "We don't like the European program, but we aren't going to do anything to reduce aviation's carbon pollution." That isn't a defensible position, so hopefully these countries will quickly shift their attention to the steps that they will take at home.

While we wait patiently for these countries to come up with their own actions to control carbon pollution, the European program will move forward as required by law. So it is worth looking at a number of the myths floating about this program.

Myth #1: The EU is bullying other countries instead of working through the international system. Not true. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was tasked in 1997 with implementing policies to reduce aviation's carbon pollution. After almost 15 years of debate on various enforceable programs, ICAO has only come up with an "aspirational global efficiency target". This target basically says: "we'll try to meet this target -- there are no penalties if we fail -- and we'll reduce the rate that our sector's emissions grow -- but they'll still grow in absolute terms". With the impacts of global warming already being felt that isn't a defensible position. We need real action.

The EU has always stated its preference for a global scheme through ICAO, but faced with years of inaction (as this timeline shows) they took the next logical step and moved forward at home. So in 2002 the Europeans announced that while a global approach was their preferred outcome, they would not sit idly by waiting for a global agreement while the aviation sector's carbon pollution continued to rise.

In 2004, ICAO decided not to proceed with developing a global system and instead focused on developing guidance for countries who wished to incorporate aviation into their own emissions trading system. And then in 2010, ICAO agreed to global "aspirational goals" to cut pollution but implied no individual responsibility for each country to act. So the Europeans waited, waited, and waited ... and then acted. That isn't bullying. That is leadership. I know firsthand as I actively participated in those debates for 5 years.

Myth #2: Their program is not in accordance with international law. For many years this claim has been raised for almost any action -- besides voluntary measures -- that were proposed for addressing aviation's carbon pollution. The European Aviation Directive is well within the requirements of international law. In fact, independent assessments have concluded that the inclusion of carbon pollution from international aviation in the EU's program: "is consistent with all relevant international provisions and therefore permissible under international law".

United/Continental and American Airlines, as well, as the Air Transport Association -- the trade association for U.S. carriers -- have challenged the program in the European Court of Justice. So of course they make the claim in press statements that it is illegal. The United Kingdom is defending the European program against the claims of the U.S.-based carriers. And a number of U.S. and European organizations have intervened in support of the European program after reviewing the legal claims by American, Continental/United, and the Air Transport Association. So claims that this program is illegal will be decided by an independent court system -- not by press statements for those bringing the case.

Myth #3: By covering emissions that occur over the airspace of other countries the EU program is illegal or asserts a new precedent. These emissions aren't owned by the U.S.. So even if the emissions occured almost completely over the U.S., claims that these emissions "aren't under the European jurisdiction" don't stand up.

The European aviation program doesn't tell an airplane company how to operate its flight outside of Europe. They aren't saying fly at this speed, using this type of aircraft, and using this fuel. The European program says that if your airline wants to land in our airport it must control the carbon pollution associated with that flight. The carbon pollution from that entire flight is causing global warming As Peter Goldmark from EDF pointed out: "... it's like many American laws that set requirements for aircraft and ships coming in and out U.S. territory.

A good example is the U.S. law passed after the Exxon Valdez spill. That law requires all ships carrying oil in U.S. waters to be equipped with a double hull -- even though that means tankers must have double hulls when they leave their ports of origin in Europe or anywhere else."

Indeed the EU program even allows for countries that take action at home to address these emissions in an "equivalent manner". Any country that can prove that it has an "equivalent" system addressing aviation's pollution can be eligible to have its carriers excluded from the European program. The onus is on all countries, including the U.S. and China, to develop, implement, enforce, and prove that it has an equivalent system.