EU firm on airline carbon tax

United States airlines are wrong to think that they can force the European Union to back down on plans to make carriers pay for emitting carbon, environmental organisations and the EU warned this week.

Airlines from more than two dozen countries have intensified their lobbying against the EU measure ahead of a recommendation from the European Court of Justice. An advocate general to the court was expected on Thursday to issue a preliminary legal opinion on the efforts by US carriers to stop the EU from bringing the aviation industry into line with other sectors under its emissions trading scheme.

The opinion is seen as an important indicator of how the full court might rule when it announces its decision, expected early next year. It is possible that the court could decide not to hear the merits of the airlines’ case, but environmental organisations said they thought that was unlikely.

The main thrust of the airlines’ argument was that the law infringed on the sovereignty of countries outside the EU and was in conflict with existing aviation treaties. The airlines are also pressing Congress and the White House for legislation to block the European move.

But Annie Petsonk, an international legal counsel for the Environmental Defence Fund, warned that the strategy –which aimed to set up a “cat fight” between Europe and the US — could backfire. “They are really setting themselves up between a rock and a hard place,” she told reporters on Tuesday. “There really is a perception among airlines in the US that if they play hardball the Europeans will change the law.”

But she argued that there was little chance of that. The EU said on Tuesday that it was not backing down. “It is a law,” the European environment commissioner, Janez Potocnik, told reporters. “There are ways how the aviation sector should participate and how they should do their job in the fight against climate change.”

The EU law, which comes into effect in 2012, requires airlines to account for their greenhouse gas emissions on all flights in and out of Europe and to buy allowances if needed. However, airlines will receive 85% of their allowances for free in 2012.

Environmental organisations argue that airline companies may not need to pay anything even after that, if they succeed in lowering their greenhouse gas emissions. But the prospect of paying for their pollution has already fuelled a global aviation backlash from India, China and Russia, besides the US. —

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