Air War: U.S. and Europe Clash Over Proposed Carbon Reductions for Airlines

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Depending on the calculations, air travel accounts for perhaps 3 to 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions, far below sources like deforestation, coal-fired electricity and automobiles. Yet I’ve always thought that airplanes play an outsized symbolic role in climate change—and in the challenge of actually stopping it. You can substitute coal for renewables or nuclear, and trade in your gas-guzzling SUV for an plug-in hybrid—in both of those cases, technological alternatives do exist, even if they’re more expensive.

But there’s really no immediate alternative to carbon-intensive jet fuel. Airlines have experimented with biofuel mixes, but they’re still a long way from regular use. Right now the only means to reduce emissions from air travel—aside from improving engine and operational efficiency—and that’s to fly less. The airline industry expects 3.3 billion travelers by 2014—up more than 800 million from 2009—with much of the growth occurring in the booming Asia-Pacific region. Whether it’s visiting Grandma for the holidays or jetting to Shanghai for business, every indication is that we’ll keep flying—and emissions will keep growing.

That’s why a court case set to be heard tomorrow at the E.U.’s Court of Justice is so important for airlines and the environment. Starting next year, the E.U. is set to extend its Emissions Trading System to the air travel industry, which means that airlines would need to account for the carbon emitted for the entirety of any flight that takes off from or lands at any airport in Europe. That holds true even if the flight begins or ends in the U.S. or China or India. Airlines would be allocated carbon permits—most of which would be free initially—but would have to buy additional credits on the carbon market if their emissions exceed those allowances. It would be the first meaningful attempt to constrain the carbon emissions from air travel.

And U.S. airlines—not to mention the U.S. government and its counterpart in China—are not happy about it.

MORE: Can the E.U. Force U.S. Airlines to Reduce their Emissions?

They argue that the cost of compliance in the E.U. system could range to the billions of dollars, and that the E.U. has no right to force foreign airlines into their carbon trading system. U.S. airlines including Continental and American filed suit against the measures in 2009, and the European court is scheduled to rule on the arguments on Wednesday in Brussels.

The airlines are expected to lose—a senior adviser to the court dismissed most of the arguments put forward by the airlines in October—but that won’t be the end of the battle. Chinese airlines—which hate the E.U. rules as much as the U.S. ones do—could go forward with a threat to bring another suit, claiming that the E.U. rules violate the Kyoto Protocol by requiring airlines from developing nations to reduce emissions. (Kyoto exempts developing nations from any mandatory carbon cuts.) Algeria is also contesting the rules in France.

And as the court cases shake out, the diplomats are getting involved too. According to the Financial Times, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has written to her European Commission counterpart Catherine Ashton to “strongly urge” the E.U. to stop the emissions plan. That letter—which goes on to say that the U.S. would “take appropriate action” if the E.U. refused to turn back—listed 42 other countries also opposed to the scheme, including Brazil, Japan and Russia. And the House of Representatives has already passed a bill that would make it illegal to for U.S. carries to comply with E.U. rules if they are indeed put in place.

MORE: Climate: Richard Branson Has a War Plan for Global Warming

Are airlines protesting a bit too much? While the industry has said the new rules could cost billions—money that you can bet will be passed to passengers—the analyst company Thomson Reuters Point Carbon put the total cost at about $1.4 billion, and that’s assuming that the price of carbon permits doesn’t continue to fall. The European Commission estimates that the price per passenger would range from $1.40 to $8.60 per ticket, depending on the length of the flight. “It’s a non-event,” said Bill Hemmings, the program manager at Transport & Environment, a Brussels-based environmental NGO. “These fare fluctuations are happening thousands of times a day.”

We’ll see whether Europe will really be able to enforce its airlines emissions program on unwilling countries, which is a bit reminiscent of the annual battles over international climate policy at the U.N. global warming summit. Once again we may be reminded that international law tends to extend only as individual countries are willing to allow it, and I’m skeptical you’ll see Washington bending. I also doubt  that an emissions trading program is the way to go. As annoying as the added costs might be to airlines, if they just pass the price to passengers, will it really aid the technological shift needed to drastically cut carbon emissions from air travel without grounding the world’s fleet?

Richard Branson may have a better idea. The Virgin CEO’s Carbon War Room non-profit launched an initiative at the U.N. climate talks in Durban earlier this month aimed at reducing the use of traditional jet fuels in favor of alternatives. And in an interview with the Guardian, Branson noted that change—should it come to the airline industry—could come relatively quickly:

Unlike cars where there are millions of filling stations, there are only about 1,700 aviation stations in the world. So if you can get the right fuel, like mass-produced algae, then getting it to 1,700 outlets is not so difficult…

I would be very disappointed if not. Once the breakthrough takes place, getting to 50-100% is not unrealistic. Aviation fuel is 25-40% of the running costs of airlines so the industry is open to new fuels.

Indeed. The perpetually unprofitable airline industry has every economic reason to move away from its dependence on oil—and business, even more than European climate rules, will drive that transition.

MORE: When Does a Flight Become “Binge Flying”?

Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME