Last week, the European Union approved a plan to include aviation in an emissions trading program beginning in 2012. The plan would force airlines flying in and out of EU airports to cut emissions by 3 percent in the first year, and by 5 percent after 2013. The scheme would affect 87 major airlines, of which 40 percent are headquartered outside the EU, Reuters reports.

The announcement comes on the heels of the first decline in passenger air traffic, in September, since the SARS outbreak in 2003. The International Air Transport Association is criticizing the bloc for its choice to impose costly restrictions on airlines in the midst of global economic turmoil, saying that “it’s Brussels acting in a bubble.” 

So are the restrictions a good move? They are expected to help the Union reach its goal of cutting CO2 emissions by 20 percent by 2020. Airlines generate about 3 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the EU, but the industry had convinced regulators that its slim profit margin should exempt it from emissions limits. Now that executives in every sector are muttering about recession, more industries are calling for exemptions from climate-based restrictions. For example, the European automotive industry is looking to ease the emissions regulations it faces – namely, that new vehicles emit 18 percent less by 2012 – as France and Germany look to defend their respective economies and stem unemployment.

Airlines are saying that the carbon caps would cost the industry at least $4.4 billion each year. They are also raising doubts about whether the rules are legal when applied to international flights, which are regulated by international aviation agreements, reports the New York Times. EU authorities estimate that within the bloc airfare could increase by up to $12 a trip, and up to $50 for a round-trip international flight to New York.  

There is some hope for both airlines and the climate in the form of newer, more fuel-efficient airframes. Ongoing research also points to the introduction of aircraft with one-third lower emissions. The 2012 start date gives airlines a few years to refurbish their fleets — but most airlines keep their aircraft around for decades, which leaves the companies with few options for cleaning up their act in the next three years. 

Story by Sandra Upson. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008.