Carbon surcharges arrive on US flights

Written by erin


It’s finally here. The first overt economic deterrent aimed at US consumers for their emissions of greenhouse gases has arrived on our shores. Figuratively, at least.

This past week, most major US airlines levied a $3 ticket surcharge on all flights to and from European Union (EU) nations after a European court determined that the “EU Aviation Directive” can and should apply to them. This means that US-based airlines will need to acquire and submit carbon emission permits in line with their emissions, consistent with the EU emissions trading scheme.

I say, hooray for fees!

But first, an explanation…

The EU emissions trading scheme has been in place for half a dozen years. It caps EU emissions and the cap declines over time. Regulated emitters are required to submit emission allowances and/or offsets to match their emissions. Most of the needed allowances are distributed for free to the emitters… but not all that they will likely require. If a company reduces its emissions a lot, it may have excess allowances to sell. Otherwise, it may have to buy allowances to meet its quota.

As a category of emitters, airlines are in a tough spot. There are things they can do to reduce their emissions, certainly – newer jets use less fuel, for example – but fundamentally, airline flight is a fossil-fuel-burning business. The US Dept. of Defense is spending big R&D bucks on aviation biofuels, and some airlines have smaller efforts underway, but jet fuel isn’t electricity and we can’t expect airlines to move away from fossil fuels as fast as we expect electricity to come from renewable sources (which isn’t nearly fast enough).

So, first Delta, then several others thereafter, decided to levy a ticket fee. I say, good for them.

And, OK, I know that this fee is seriously imperfect. It is a flat fee, and doesn’t account for the disproportionate impacts of business-class and first-class flying. All airlines adopted the same fee, which means you don’t get any sense of which airline is best managing its emissions. It doesn’t reflect the actual price of acquiring carbon emission permits, which varies because there is market for carbon in Europe.

(Quick math: if you were buying large quantities of European emission permits at wholesale today, those permits would cost you about $7 to cover a one-way flight US – UK at today’s historically low EU carbon prices. The airlines get roughly two-thirds of their permits for free, so their actual compliance cost today is grossly about $2.33 for that one-way ticket, not including legal costs incurred fighting the requirement and administrative costs incurred to comply).

Even so. Even if some airlines make out like bandits, as some have suggested they might. Even so. I applaud the fee. It’s a very small fee for an activity that carries a fairly large and difficult to mitigate impact. I hope it makes people think about the connection between their flight and climate change. Even if only for a second. It’s a start.

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  1. Christine Llewellyn

    I agree, $3 is a very small fee. And wouldn’t be great if these fees started applied to cruise passengers, too, who incur MUCH more emissions than airline passengers. I’m not surprised there’s pushback, though.

  2. Anonymous

    Sarcasm? Really now, who said anything about living in a cave. Besides, a cave won’t protect you when there is too much carbon dioxide in the atmsphere to support human life.
    And yes Virginia, Geolgists can point to a geologic layer in our earths crust where that did indeed happen.

  3. Suntrana45

    Remember, no matter how large the door they all open very slowly. Go, pay your “guilt” fees, but remember that door will never close, the gap only widens. And by the way please include data and reference to geological “snuff” period. Ask yourself where these alleged fees are going, to whom, what purpose, intended results, etc. Feel sorry for the airlines, don’t, 9/11 would not have occurred if they had complied with cockpit security measures in the 70’s (former 747 worker).

  4. Ross

    As explained here (, the EU carbon price phases in over a number of years, starting around 15% of eventual price.
    Thanks for the great post, Erin!

  5. Susan Kraemer

    Does anyone know who keeps the fee?
    All other carbon fees through the cap and trade in the EU go into the ETS cap and trade program CDM fund to pay for renewable projects (ie in the developing world – like the huge solar and wind projects in Morocco and Egypt, and Desertec.)
    But this is the first time the pollution fees will be collected outside the EU.
    (I know the airlines will reimburse themselves with passenger surcharges – but the fee is charged by the EU, so it should go there, right?)
    Does the money goes back to the EU to continue its great renewable development?

  6. Martin

    I thought the climate change debacle could not get any dummer. What’s old Lard Butt (Gore) going to pay farting around in his private jet? This is truely the theater of the absurd. Bastardized science (ala climate-gate) and a mass delusion.

  7. rmr2

    I am still skeptical about this fee. How is it administered? Who gets it? what is done with it? It’s not chump change: @ 87,000 flight per day in the US, say there is an average of 100 people on each flight, that’s $25,000,000 / day in round figures. Who get’s this? What’s done with it? Plant trees?

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