Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Obama's tightrope on European airline emissions

Obama and the Senate Democrats are playing dangerous games, hopefully with care, with Europe's attempt to reduce carbon emissions from airlines.  The EU is applying cap-and-trade not just to internal flights but also flights to and from Europe.  For that, the US lines up with China and Russia saying the Europeans shouldn't care about emissions that start outside of their own borders.

This is important even if you don't like cap and trade and prefer a carbon tax.  How one area that's controlling its emissions interacts with other areas that aren't has to be resolved or the system will break down.  The key method is some kind of carbon emission tariff, and the EU system for airlines parallels that. A legitimate complaint could be made that the EU is keeping all the money for the carbon allocation emissions - it should instead divide up the money for carbon reductions with the outside countries.

I'm going to be optimistic that Obama hopes to use the crisis to push for a global framework on controlling airline emissions.  Using a crisis to achieve a resolution better than the status quo ante is a standard technique, but a risky one. A global airline emission framework has been in the works, for fourteen years.  The EU has every reason not to wait, but hopefully their push forward can move the rest of the world forward.

Airline emissions also aren't trivial and likely to increase substantially.  Anyone who's calculated their own carbon footprint can see that months of efforts to control emissions get ruined by a single cross-country flight.

Electricity from renewable energy can transform ground transport but can't do the same in the air.  Jet fuel from biofuels is barely getting started, so this is a serious problem.  Let's hope we don't stumble.