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Plan to Cut Jet Pollution Is Approved in Europe

By Matthew L. Wald and James Kanter (The New York Times) - November 14, 2007

The European Union voted Tuesday to impose quotas on the emission of carbon dioxide by airlines, setting up a fight with the United States, which argues against unilateral actions on aviation, a relatively small but rapidly growing source of global warming gases.

The European Parliament gave preliminary approval to a global warming control plan that would require, beginning in 2011, that airlines flying to and from Europe offset some of their emissions by buying carbon dioxide allowances on the open market.

A result would be increased pressure on airlines to do more to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases from burning jet fuel. 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 goal would be to reduce future emissions to 90 percent of the average given off in recent years, or to offset any excess above that limit.

The backers of the plan said they hoped other countries would emulate the European approach.

“We want a worldwide system as soon as possible,” said Peter Liese, a German member of the Parliament who helped to guide the legislation through the assembly, which met in Strasbourg, France. “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.”

Airline emissions were not part of the Kyoto Protocol’s targets for reducing each nation’s output of greenhouse gases. Limits on airlines were left to the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency. This year, in anticipation of the European action, that organization passed a resolution emphasizing that it would be in charge of carbon reduction agreements, but it has not acted.

Carl Burleson, the director of the office of environment and energy at the Federal Aviation Administration, said after the European vote, “This doesn’t go along with what the world community agreed to, which is that you should undertake this on the basis of mutual agreement.”

To reduce the region’s emissions of carbon dioxide, which come mostly from burning fossil fuels, Europe has established a trading arrangement. Companies that face high costs for reducing their emissions can purchase credits from other companies that can cut emissions as less cost. The price of credits fluctuates.

The United States has never joined in the Kyoto agreement, although Congress is debating regulations on carbon emissions.

Some American environmentalists hailed the European action. “It’s a big step forward to include airlines,” said Rafe Pomerance, president of the Climate Policy Center, an environmental advocacy group. He helped negotiate the Kyoto agreement during the Clinton administration.

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 percent 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 percent less fuel than average planes.

The 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.

At a conference last month in Washington on global aircraft emissions, Shigenori Hiraoka, a researcher at the Japan International Transport Institute, pointed out that transportation emissions were 14 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2004, but that aviation was just 6 percent of those emissions. That puts emissions from aviation in the range of 1 percent of all emissions. “Aviation’s share is still small,” he said. “Why bother?”

The answer, he said, was that aviation is galloping ahead, with growth of about 4.4 percent a year, overwhelming the fuel economy gains of about 1.3 percent a year.

While American carriers resist being brought into Europe’s control system, European airlines oppose it, too. Last week Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways, said in a speech at the International Aviation Club in Washington, “We need a mechanism that will allow us to continue to meet the rising demand for air travel until more fundamental technological breakthroughs are made.”