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Flying the more expensive skies

The American Clean Energy and Security (née Waxman Markey) covers an impressive swath of the U.S. economy — nearly 85% of total carbon emissions, as compared to Europe’s 52%. One area it doesn’t cover, however, is aviation, at least not via the cap-and-trade mechanism that puts a hard limit on total emissions. Instead, the bill makes brief mention of creating efficiency standards for new aircraft engines based on the best technology available at the time. Of course, airlines are already highly motivated to employ the most efficient possible aircraft technology, because fuel is one of their biggest costs.

Fearing more punitive measures, a consortium of international airlines that includes Air France, British Airways, and Virgin Atlantic has recently proposed that the airline industry be folded into the European emissions trading scheme. Although the proposal contains some industry-friendly terms — particularly the provision that most carbon permits be given away rather than auctioned — it strikes me overall as a surprisingly credible effort for something coming out of an industry group. The proposed emissions reductions aren’t hugely ambitious, but any reductions at all represent a considerable improvement over the status quo scenario, which projects rapid growth in airline emissions.

American airlines, naturally, are resisting. An industry spokesperson makes the point that American airlines have already invested heavily in efficiency. Without easy technological fixes to fall back on, airlines will be forced to buy carbon permits on the open market:

> “Our low-hanging fruit has long been taken care of,” she said. “Our position is, we’ve sort of already paid, and we don’t really want to pay another industry to do what they could have done.”

This complaint misses the point entirely. Sure, efficiency is great. If airlines can fly the same number of miles on a smaller carbon footprint, then both the environment and the industry come out ahead. But if further efficiency improvements are hard to come by, then the cap will have the effect of raising fuel costs for the industry, which will then pass those higher costs on to consumers. Which is almost certainly what needs to happen to bring down airline emissions.

As an ardent traveler, I’d love for this not to be the case. But I also know that I can’t complain too much. Flying is incredibly cheap these days, truly a mass luxury, and one whose consumption is highly sensitive to price changes. So if carbon pricing eventually inspires the creation of an eco-friendly, biofuel-powered plane, that’s great. But in the near term, the main effect should be to inspire travelers to take the train.

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