The European Parliament voted Tuesday to include airlines in the EU strategy to cut greenhouse gases, giving all carriers flying within or into the 27-nation bloc until 2011 to offset some of their emissions by buying carbon dioxide allowances on the open market.
Under the proposal, considered illegal by some non-EU countries mainly United States, airlines would trade pollution allowances, forcing them to buy more credits or reduce the emissions of each aircraft if they want to fly more. Each airline would be allowed to emit 90% of its average emissions for 2004-2006 for free before having to buy additional credits. Europe has imposed similar emissions limits on other industries for several years in search of steep reductions in its greenhouse gas production. The cost of this proposal to the airlines is hard to estimate, because the price of carbon allowances has varied widely, as has the value of the currency in which they are denominated, the Euro. The backers of the plan said they hoped other countries would emulate the European approach. The original proposal, put forward by the EU executive Commission in December, had envisaged a one-year grace period for non-EU airlines. "If one part of the sector joined the plan later, we would have competitive disadvantages," said Peter Liese, the German conservative lawmaker charged with steering the legislation through the assembly. EU governments are expected to put the finishing touches to the proposal in the first half of 2008, the parliament said. "We want a worldwide system as soon as possible" said Liese but "there must be an end to the status quo that nothing is done in the aviation sector and which has predominated for many years now." The United States has warned the EU risks a trade clash if it implements the plan. It has said the EU has no right to force airlines flying into the EU to participate in its program, and that it is the International Civil Aviation Organization, a UN body, that has jurisdiction over the matter. But Liese said the EU had a "very sound" legal basis for its plan, and that it was prepared to modify it for any third country that came up with an equally environmentally friendly proposal for its own aviation sector. The International Air Transport Association, which represents the airline industry worldwide, called the plan "hypocritical" and said the cost of fuel alone ÃÂ¢€" making up 28 percent of airlines' operating costs ÃÂ¢€" is enough to force them to reduce fuel burn and CO2 emissions. "Europe's go-it-alone approach on emissions trading is counterproductive. Regional schemes will have, at best, limited impact on the environment. And their unilateral application to foreign airlines is a clear breach" of international rules, IATA said. The aviation plan is part of the EU push to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by the year 2020, a first step in a strategy to fight global warming and reduce Europe's dependence on oil and gas imports. Greenhouse gas emissions from aviation increased by 87% in the EU from 1990-2003. Environmental groups criticized the cap-and-trade plan as inadequate. The European Union plans to begin by putting internal flights under its existing carbon control plan. The airlines have been stressing technology as a way to cut emissions per flight. For example, the jumbo Airbus A380 is supposed to burn 17% less fuel per seat than a Boeing 747-400, and the Boeing 787, which is supposed to begin test flights next year, is supposed to burn 30% less fuel than average planes. The US Federal Aviation Administration argues that improvements in air traffic control will reduce emissions per flight, by letting airplanes fly on more direct routes and at altitudes that are more efficient for their engines But experts also say the improvements will allow more traffic, driving total emissions higher. On average, studies have found, a traveler making a typical trip in a plane accounts for roughly the same greenhouse gas emissions as one traveling alone by car, although much depends on the details of any particular trip.