Blue-Sky Thinking

Airlines produce a hefty chunk of global greenhouse gas emissions: Collectively, they are responsible for about 3.5 percent of warming gases, the same as a medium-sized nation like Canada. That’s still less than the amount produced by cars - but with passenger numbers expected to double over the next two decades, the UN predicts that the industry will produce 15 percent of the world’s climate-changing emissions by 2050.

Unfortunately, there’s little sign of the airlines scrambling to mend their ways. So far, they’ve focused on trying to persuade passengers to pay to offset their journeys: Continental announced last week that it was launching an offsetting option, and Virgin plans to guilt-trip passengers by selling offsets from the aisle during flights. Such programs are a start, but they’re no panacea: Given the scale of the problem, offsetting alone will never be enough.

And while airlines brag about their commitment to the environment, their behavior tells a very different story. British Airways drew flak recently for wastefully shuttling dozens of empty planes across the Atlantic to avoid losing valuable takeoff and landing slots. A number of European airlines admit to flying so-called “tango routes,” taking lengthy diversions - and producing many tons of unnecessary emissions - in order to dodge traffic-control charges. And both Boeing and Airbus were recently caught misrepresenting their fleets’ green credentials, basing per-passenger emissions ratings on unrealistically high occupancy rates.

Now, though, European lawmakers are seeking to force the airlines’ hands: Last month, the European Parliament voted to introduce a cap-and-trade system for all airlines flying to or from Europe. The move would make it more expensive for airlines to burn fuel, penalizing their wasteful ways. It would also create a financial incentive for airlines to switch to clean-burning kerosene-biofuel mixes, which at present would do little for their bottom line.

The White House says the EU’s plan violates international aviation agreements, but the protests aren’t likely to amount to much: Neither the US nor the airlines themselves can afford to abandon European airspace. The biggest problem is likely to be setting up the market in the first place: Carbon trading programs can go disastrously wrong if businesses are given a free ride early on, and the early signs aren’t promising.

Still, if Europe can get this right it could trigger the spread of similar schemes in the US, and influence Democrats as they work to complete their climate change legislation. Greens on both sides of the Atlantic should keep their fingers crossed.

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