Carbon tax hits turbulence

South Africa joined 25 other countries meeting in Moscow this week to do battle against a controversial European Union law that forces airlines landing in Europe to pay for their carbon emissions.

Observers said it was unlikely that the government would ban South African airlines from using airports in the 27-nation union, as China did recently and Russia is threatening to do. But the government and the Airlines Association of Southern Africa have thrown their weight behind the “coalition of the unwilling”, as the 26 countries opposed to the emissions trading scheme have been dubbed.

The scheme came into effect in January and requires all flights arriving or departing from EU airports to pay for 15% of the carbon they emit. Most of the cost is expected to be passed on to airline passengers.

During the scheme’s phase-in this year, tickets for flights from South Africa to Europe are expected to cost about R30 to R50 more. But industry experts warned this week that the costs would escalate in years to come.

“The EU is unilaterally imposing a regional solution on the airline industry,” said Chris Zweigenthal, chief executive of the Airlines Association of Southern Africa. “Airlines will be assessed on carbon dioxide emitted from the departure point in the EU to South Africa and return, irrespective of the fact that the majority of the flight does not even occur in EU airspace.”

The environment ministers of South Africa, Brazil, India and China issued a joint statement last week condemning the scheme. They said the EU was jeopardising the global fight against climate change by acting on its own rather than building a multilateral agreement.

Late last year South Africa also signed a “Delhi declaration” with 25 developing and developed nations, including Japan, Canada and the United States, opposing the scheme and agreeing to lodge a formal protest with the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organisation.

The EU has dug in its heels in recent weeks. It said it included all airlines in the scheme because more than a decade of international talks had failed to find an answer to curbing rising carbon emissions from aviation.

“Emissions from aviation are growing faster than from any other sector and all forecasts indicate they will continue to do so under business-as-usual conditions. Firm action is needed,” said Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s commissioner for climate action.

Airlines that fly to Europe and do not comply with the scheme face a fine of €100 for each tonne of CO2 emitted for which they have not paid allowances. Persistent offenders could be banned from EU airports.

“The danger of the emissions trading scheme is that it could lead to reciprocal action by many other states or regions, leading to huge additional costs to the detriment of the industry and ultimately the ­consumer,” Zweigenthal said.

The scheme affects SAA, which has three flights a day to the United Kingdom and two a day to Germany, as well regional airlines such as Air Mauritius and Air Namibia. SAA did not answer Mail & Guardian ­questions on the row this week.

Zweigenthal said how much the airlines would have to pay would depend on the amount of fuel they used flying to Europe, which would determine the CO2 tonnage and ­carbon permits they need to buy.
The calculations were being audited and would be finalised by the end of the year.

Communications director at the environment department, Albi Modise, said the impacts would be felt disproportionately by so-called “long haul destination” countries, with severe implications for economic sectors reliant on imports, exports and travel.

“In this context, the EU’s scheme can be seen as a unilateral trade measure disguised in the name of climate change. It undermines the multilateral process that all parties reaffirmed at COP17 in Durban and raises the question of whether the EU is truly committed to a multilaterally agreed global response to the climate change crisis,” Modise said.

Earlier this month China’s central government said the country’s airlines were barred from taking part in the EU scheme, unless they received government approval to do so.

Although the South African government strongly opposed the “unilateral and extrajudicial” nature of the EU scheme, it was unlikely to implement similar punitive action, said the department of transport’s deputy director for environmental co-ordination, Jacob Dikgang.

“The national treasury is proposing a basket of measures that would include carbon caps and taxes, but we are not in favour of them for aviation,” Dikgang said.

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Fiona Macleod
Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod is an environmental writer for the Mail & Guardian newspaper and editor of the M&G Greening the Future and Investing in the Future supplements.

She is also editor of Lowveld Living magazine in Mpumalanga.

An award-winning journalist, she was previously environmental editor of the M&G for 10 years and was awarded the Nick Steele award for environmental conservation.

She is a former editor of Earthyear magazine, chief sub-editor and assistant editor of the M&G, editor-in-chief of HomeGrown magazines, managing editor of True Love and production editor of The Executive.

She served terms on the judging panels of the SANParks Kudu Awards and The Green Trust Awards. She also worked as a freelance writer, editor and producer of several books, including Your Guide to Green Living, A Social Contract: The Way Forward and Fighting for Justice.

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