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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adam

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  1. Roger from Solar Power Facts - July 1, 2009

    Well, given that airlines are already doing everything they can to reduce their carbon output I suppose it’s not unrealistic to exclude them. Including them would only slug the commuter for more dollars, and God knows taxes are already high enough.

  2. Ja - July 1, 2009

    I really think it’s up to knowledgeable consumers to avoid flying if at all possible. I love to travel, but I have cut way, way down. There are few things worse for the environment than flying.

  3. darooda - July 1, 2009

    I’m fine with taking our time on figuring out how to treat the airlines. If the US rolls out a system that is more taxing on their airlines than europe does, it will put them at a disadvantage when competing with them. I’d like to see airline emmissions reduced and agree that prices should be higher and the train is a good alternative in some locations. However, the airline industry is very shakey right now, it is already highly motivated to save fuel, and frankly we don’t need any more job losses right now. I’m fine if we wait and learn.

  4. John V - July 1, 2009

    Adam,
    Seriously, what train? what train is going boston to denver, chicago to austin, atlanta to LA? I love my environment, but jacking up airline prices without a roadmap as to how things will actually change is a little extreme. A better question is HOW do we use different tools like carbon pricing to create incentives creating of an eco-friendly plane or high speed train network? Productivity declines that would otherwise result encourage general societal decline, including fewer resources (e.g. $$$) to direct toward climate change.

  5. Adam Stein - July 1, 2009

    If there’s no train, then too bad. Don’t fly if you can’t afford the carbon charge.
    I’m not trying to be glib, but sometimes you just have to pay the man. The CBO projects that carbon prices will be $28/ton in 2020. A cross-country flight emits about one ton of CO2 per passenger. So if airlines can’t find any fuel efficiencies (and they certainly can) over the next decade, then the price of a cross-country ticket will eventually go up by about $30.
    In the meantime, airline travel is cheaper than it’s ever been. I can get from New York to San Francisco for $240. I agree that we need to be sensitive to the economic impacts of carbon pricing, but this isn’t an area I’m losing any sleep over.