Crimea crisis can bring blue-sky thinking on aviation

April 1, 2014

Global headlines are being dominated by events in Crimea, and how the West is dealing or ought to deal with it. All this geopolitics seems of terribly remote interest for the issues that concern us, humble environmentalists. But is it?

Well, not really. The whole standoff is quickly redefining Europe’s energy policy and transatlantic ties, since Western leaders want to look and sound more united than at any point since 9/11 – despite NSA-related grievances. That can have lots of bad consequences for the climate: cheap American coal, oil and gas flooding Europe’s markets, outcompeting efficiency and renewables (without Europe attaching environmental strings to them, of course); a hastily negotiated EU-US trade and investment deal with lots of provisions that make environmental policy even harder to develop and implement. In a future editorial I will say more about the latter.
But there can be silver linings. One is energy efficiency. If climate change, energy costs and energy imports are worries, energy efficiency and using less oil can address them all. Now this is nothing new as a concept – but we have to start delivering, beginning with laying out an aggressive trajectory for more efficient cars, vans and trucks for 2020 and beyond.
A second possible silver lining takes a bit more blue-sky thinking, and indeed, it’s in aviation. 
So far so bad. The US has been cheerleading efforts to undermine Europe’s inclusion of aviation in its emissions trading system – starting with the Washington-masterminded ‘Moscow Declaration’ against the ETS in February 2012. For China, India and Russia, it was good EU bashing from behind Uncle Sam’s broad back. 
But if Uncle Sam can bring himself to thinking beyond ‘Airlines 4 America’ and its servants in the Federal Aviation Administration, it must see that working with Europe on a constructive and respectful transatlantic solution for aviation emissions is a great strategy. Working with Europe isolates Russia instead of empowering it. And working with, not against, Europe on a solution for transatlantic aviation emissions could be a great start for a wider international climate deal which is impossible to envisage if even the West itself is deeply divided. 
Yes, it would be wonderful if ICAO pulled off a meaningful global deal. But we have been an observer at ICAO for 15 years now, injecting a healthy dose of realism, if not skepticism, into the very idea of a sudden breakthrough. 
Perhaps therefore we should also contemplate an intermediate, more realistic step; a US-EU measure with Europe responsible for one half of transatlantic flights through the ETS (50% of departing and arriving, or departing flights), and the US for the other half. That would make so much sense. After all, transatlantic flights are overwhelmingly operated by airlines based at either end of these routes. Thereafter the rest of the world might progressively agree to expand the scope. That would be something. My hunch is Obama himself would be up for it, if pros and cons were honestly explained to him. If only someone would.

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