Congress should stop interfering in Europe's aviation carbon pollution policy

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In Congress Should Not Try to Stop the Europeans From Controlling Aviation's Carbon Pollution," Jake Schmidt (International Climate Policy Director, Natural Resources Defense Council), shines some light on an important issue lurking in the dark corners of a huge bill being considered by Congress right now.  The bill would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – the US agency that regulates airlines.  Sounds fine so far.  But a little-noticed provision in the House version of the bill would try to block a program in the European Union to tackle climate pollution from aircraft coming into and leaving the EU.  Why would Congress try to stop other countries from tackling climate change? 

It is especially important that the EU program move forward as it is a good model for what we really need:  A global mechanism to tackle pollution from this truly global sector; a sector that already contributes a sizeable chunk of global emissions and is quickly growing.  Although the EU pollution targets are less ambitious than we need, it’s a start. 

The EU program also includes another key element that should be in a future global program:  It calls for revenue generated from polluter fees to be used to support adaptation and mitigation activities in poorer countries.  These activities, like reducing emissions from tropical deforestation in places like the Amazon and Borneo, are critical to achieving the kinds of emissions reductions we need to hold off catastrophic climate change, while protecting important ecosystems and species. 

The EU program should be supported and strengthened – not blocked before it can even get out of the starting gate.  Right now it’s up to a handful of Senators, including climate champion Barbara Boxer, to ensure that the House language doesn’t become law.  Let’s hope they are up to the task. 

We repost below Schmidt's Huffington Post piece (dtd June 2, 2011).  See also the new WWF International "Recommendation Paper," International Transport: Turning an Emissions Problem into a Finance Opportunity [PDF, June 2011]. 

Why would a reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have anything to say about the steps that Europe is taking to reduce carbon pollution from aviation?  The answer should be nothing.  But unfortunately the US Senate is considering language passed by the House of Representatives that would signal unhappiness with Europe’s efforts to control the carbon pollution from aviation.  The Senate and the White House should reject this language as it is incorrect as a matter of law, would attempt to stop another country’s efforts to reduce carbon pollution, and would hamper incentives to enhance aircraft fuel efficiency which saves consumers money.  A point recently highlighted by major environment, development, and faith-based groups in a letter to the Senate.

When the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to reauthorize the FAA  they included a provision (H.R. 658, sec. 511) which would seek to undermine Europe’s efforts to control carbon pollution from aircraft that land and take-off in Europe.  When the Senate passed its FAA reauthorization bill (S.233) they didn’t include such a provision and it appears that such language was never considered or debated.  But now the two bills must be reconciled and there is the possibility that the Senate will agree to include the language in the final bill.

The EU’s program – the Aviation Directive – is well within the requirements of international law.  Independent assessments have concluded that the inclusion of greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation in the EU’s program: “is consistent with all relevant international provisions and therefore permissible under international law.”  All flights to and from Europe are subject to the same requirements to reduce pollution – they don’t discriminate between European, US, Chinese, or other carriers.  This is important because international law related to aviation requires that you apply a common standard to all flights that use your airports.  So each plane that uses European airports has to comply with European law – a very common requirement for companies operating in another country. 

The program requires very reasonable pollution reductions.  The aviation sector is a major source of the world’s carbon pollution – accounting for more emissions than the entire United Kingdom.  And left unregulated, aviation emissions are on pace to quadruple by 2050.  The EU program requires a 3% emissions reduction (compared to a 2004-2006 baseline) by 2013, and a 5% reduction by 2020.  Given the needed pollution reductions to address global warming this is a very modest cut in pollution.  It also provides airlines with several avenues to meet their targets.  And flights arriving from countries with equivalent programs are exempted from the requirements.  So any country that undertakes similar binding cuts in aviation emissions through their domestic law would be able to have their flights excluded.

US companies are already competing to produce better airplanes.  US-based aircraft and engine manufacturers are already making strides to produce more efficient airplanes.  Boeing characterizes its 787 as having “unmatched fuel efficiency” and using “20 percent less fuel for comparable missions than today's similarly sized airplane.”  And Time Magazine just included an article highlighting Connecticut based Pratt & Whitney’s new engine: “that promises a 16% better fuel burn and carbon emissions.”  The European program would encourage airlines throughout the world to purchases these more efficient aircraft and engines that US-based companies are already producing.  This would help create US manufacturing jobs, while saving consumers money as the airlines spend less on fuel costs. 

So why would Congress consider a provision that would send a signal of unease about the steps another country is taking to reduce carbon pollution?  Especially at a time when it failed to pass a climate bill that would have addressed aviation’s emissions in essentially the same manner as the European program.  Unfortunately, we don’t know why Congress would include such a provision as there has not been a debate on this language.  The fate of this provision rests in the hands of a small group of Senators negotiating the final compromise bill with the House.  Let’s hope they do the right thing and drop this language.

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For full text of the ill-conceived House language in the FAA reauthorization (HR 658), see the bottom of this blog post posted on the Huffington Post.

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