Polluter-pays-principle should apply to aviation’s greenhouse gas emissions

June 9th, 2011 by Connie Hedegaard

Aviation’s contribution to climate change is forecast to grow substantially in the future unless we act. As most other sectors are already subject to measures, it is only reasonable that this sector should also contribute to fight climate change.

Almost 20 years after countries across the world in the UN Rio declaration agreed on the need to “promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution” it seems high time that this polluter-pays-principle is finally also applied to aviation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Aircraft at Gatwick Airport (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

How can we ever hope to make ordinary citizens of the world to play their part in tackling climate change if the financier from Hong Kong or London or the business man from Guandong or Frankfurt is not asked for any contribution whatsoever in respect of the significant emissions that he incurs on an intercontinental flight?

The U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), in fact already in 2004 unanimously endorsed the idea of emissions trading, and expressly recognised that one of the most promising avenues to pursue this was to “incorporate emissions from international aviation into States’ emissions trading schemes”. This is precisely what the EU decided to do when it subsequently took the initiative to include aviation in the EU’s emissions trading system (EU ETS).

Emissions from airplanes affect the climate regardless of their nationality. Aviation is a competitive business, where on any given route, all carriers must be treated equally regardless of their nationality to ensure legality, avoid distortions of competition and maximize the environmental impact. Consequently, the EU legislation applies to all outgoing and incoming flights.

This legislation is fully consistent with international law. Indeed, ICAO experts long ago, and after carefully studying the matter, concluded that “there are no provisions in the Chicago Convention that address or would appear to prohibit the development and implementation of such programmes”. It is also consistent with the policy of ICAO, which endorsed emissions trading precisely because it was the most effective economic instrument for tackling aviation emissions, when compared to alternatives such as taxes or charges.

A lot of misinformation and misunderstandings about the EU rules and the costs for carriers circulate – the fact is that the vast majority of emissions rights (85%) are given for free to airlines, while the remaining 15% of the cap is auctioned. Auction revenues will be used to tackle climate change in the EU and third countries, inter alia, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to adapt to the impacts of climate change in the EU and third countries, especially developing countries, to fund research and development for mitigation and adaptation, including in particular in the fields of aeronautics and air transport, to reduce emissions through low-emission transport and to measures to avoid deforestation.

The EU fully recognizes that ultimately global action is required, but this will take time to develop. In order not to duplicate efforts, the EU’s legislation clearly envisages that if a country outside the EU were to take equivalent measures then all flights from that country could be exempt from the EU scheme. But honestly, in Europe we cannot see why a student flying back home should pay for his pollution while the Chinese businessman should not. We are ready to engage constructively with other partners about such an approach and encourage other governments to join in and take responsibility for controlling aviation’s emissions. We have always been and continue to be open to discuss how best to combine our efforts in addressing the impact of aviation on the global climate.


Connie Hedegaard is European Commissioner for Climate Action


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