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Environment & Science

Leavin' on a jet plane, and your carbon will cost you

A plane of the Spanish Iberia carrier arrives at the terminal 4 of Madrid Barajas airport.
A plane of the Spanish Iberia carrier arrives at the terminal 4 of Madrid Barajas airport.
DANI POZO/AFP/Getty Images

We're kind of conflicted as a society about the connection between air travel and global warming. In a world where airlines are offering carbon offsets on their own sites voluntarily, the United States government and the airline industry lobby continue to fight carbon fees for air travel. 

US airlines are responding to European Union rules that kicked in a month ago levying a charge for carbon dioxide emissions during flights to and from the continent. They're passing the charges on to passengers. USA Today reports on the program

The program sets a cap on carbon-dioxide emissions and allows airlines to fly 85% of that cap for free through this year. That percentage decreases after 2013. Airlines have to pay for the rest by buying "allowances" from industries that burn less.

Airlines that don't fly with the proper number of allowances could incur a fine of up to $130 per ton of carbon-dioxide emissions and risk being barred from European airspace.

Right now, it's a $3 surcharge. But as Reuters reports, that could soar to "as much as $90 as carriers look to pass along the expense to passengers."

In Los Angeles, according to Marshall Lowe at LAX public affairs, we're looking at 100 flights a week or so during the month of January to the EU, carrying nearly 32,000 people. That's a lot of cheese. 

But then, American carriers project that they will end up spending a lot of cheese themselves, $3.1 billion on the carbon permits by 2020. That could ultimately raise the price of a trans-Atlantic ticket as much as $57 for a flight from New York to London, they told the New York Times.

It's hardly surprising that Airlines for America, an industry group, argues on behalf of its member airlines that they've done a lot already to conserve fuel, operate efficiently, even making planes more aerodynamic. Or that US airlines fought International Civil Aviation Organization efforts to organize emission limits, and then argued to the EU that it lacks the other is the only one that can make limits. 

And it's kind of predictable that China doesn't want to pay the fees.

But should climate activists be surprised that the United States government (Transportation and State departments) is getting ready to "respond appropriately" too? According to The New Yorker:

... the heads of several of the nation’s leading environmental groups noted that the Administration is “actively thwarting other countries’ efforts to effectively and efficiently reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” a position that is incompatible with the Administration’s own stated commitment to avoiding “a dangerous rise in global average temperatures.” The groups urged the Administration to abide by the European court’s decision, “just as the Administration would wish other nations to respect the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.”

What do you think this says about the relevance of climate change as a policy issue for the federal government?