It may be a first, but will aviation in the ETS cut emissions?

Editorial by João Vieira, T&E Policy Officer

There are moments in the life of an NGO when a major step is taken which doesn't go as far as the NGO would like, but which nonetheless represents significant progress. As such, we are quite happy to recognise last month's vote in the European Parliament to include aviation in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme as an important moment.

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[mailchimp_signup][/mailchimp_signup]After years of us and others highlighting the environmental damage caused by aviation, the EU has finally done something to try and counteract its impact. It has shown courage, in particular in standing up to threats from the USA, and against a background of abysmal inaction from the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the body charged with regulating emissions from aircraft under the Kyoto protocol. For all that, the EU deserves praise, and hopefully the international community will support this action rather than fight it or try to circumnavigate it.

So why are we at T&E so reluctant to be happy about this?  There are two reasons. The terms on which aviation has entered the ETS will mean very limited reductions in emissions from aircraft – this might create the illusion that other measures that would do much more to reduce emissions (emission standards, kerosene taxes, etc) are no longer needed. And there is a danger the ETS might now be seen as a 'silver bullet' solution for emissions from transport.

Aviation's entry into the ETS was never going to make a massive difference to emissions from air travel, but the deal we have means any reduction will amount to no more than a year's growth.

Airlines will be allowed to buy permits from other sectors without restrictions, so their emissions will continue to grow.  Instead of changing to greener technologies and operations, the aviation sector is likely to limit its climate efforts to buying permits in the carbon market.  In addition, this directive only addresses CO2 emissions, ignoring the fact that NOx emissions from aircraft at altitude and aviation-induced clouds also have climatic impact.  It will mean aviation remains the least efficient and most climate-intensive mode of transport.
The limitations of a cap-and-trade system's ability to effectively reduce emissions from transport should be a lesson for EU decision-makers, some of whom seem tempted by the idea of emissions trading for road transport.

The ETS is a system mostly conceived for large fixed emission facilities, some of them from industries that face international competition.  Transport is different: it has numerous operators of mobile emission sources, which do not face international competition (mostly because transport is a geographically bound activity).

T&E has said all along that including aviation in the ETS can only be a first step.  If the transport sector is to reduce its emissions, other measures to address the climatic impacts of all modes of transport will be needed.  

Without the courage to apply fuel taxation, fair and efficient infrastructure charging and strict emission standards, applying emissions trading to transport will simply allow transport to keep growing its emissions, which in turn increases the pressure on other sectors that are more vulnerable and already reducing their emissions.

That is unfair to those industries, and irresponsible to future generations.