Over the last century, innovation in global air transport has opened the door for endless possibilities worldwide. Because of these innovations we get to explore new parts of the world, visit our favorite destinations, or meet with international colleagues and friends.
As someone who travels quite often, my own trips abroad have introduced me to people and exposed me to new issues and ideas. On some of these travels, I have witnessed how climate change has created new vulnerabilities in the agriculture sector because climate change is challenging farmers with increasingly unpredictable water supply and temperature extremes. I have met with farmers who are unable to grow food to feed their families because of the weather changes. I have met children who must stop going to school in order to spend time searching for water or helping to cultivate their families’ small farms. The impacts of climate change are devastating.
Few of us think about how much the very flights we take are actually contributing to the impacts of climate change. Yet, as the industry grows, their emissions may triple or quadruple in the next forty years.
In order to reduce the impact of airline travel on the environment, the European Union has created a law to cap carbon emissions from flights arriving to and departing from the EU. By selling a portion of pollution permits to airlines, the law also generates finance that can be used to help poor countries adapt to the impacts of climate change. This law – even as modest as it is – helps the airline industry to face the inevitable: when it comes to climate change, no one gets a free ride.
The EU law makes smart business sense. The Associated Press reported over Memorial Day weekend that fuel accounts for more than one-third of airline operating budgets this summer. Greener fleets and newer technologies like GPS systems to reduce flight paths exist and will reduce fuel costs, save money, and lower emissions – and airlines need to get serious about these steps now. The law requires that airlines reduce their emissions 3 percent below 2004-2006 levels by 2013 and 5 percent by 2020. Sooner or later the industry is going to have to face the challenge of lowering carbon emissions or consumers will face the consequences of climate impacts. Moreover, poor people in the United States and other countries will face the brunt of these impacts and yet have the least capacity to respond.
Sadly, instead of seizing an opportunity to develop further innovation in the airline industry, the Air Transportation Association of America (ATA), American Airlines, and United Airlines filed a lawsuit to exempt themselves from the law. The airlines are touting their environmental commitments while fighting measures to address climate change. Lawsuits, marketing and lobbyists will not make flight emissions go away.
The airlines aren’t the only entity fighting an opportunity; the Obama administration is too. Just recently the administration raised its strong objections to the EU law. This is unfortunate, as the EU law would actually help the United States meet its international climate commitments. Back in 2009, the U.S. government made a commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. It also made a commitment to work with other countries to mobilize $100 billion per year for climate action in developing countries. The EU law would help the United States meet its international commitments to reduce emissions and generate finance. Of course, regulating the airline industry is only part of the solution, but it is a start.
Airlines and the U.S. government have a responsibility to reduce emissions which cause climate change and to support poor countries and communities who are experiencing the impacts of climate change. If the airlines can figure out how to fly us across the world, surely they can figure out how to do it in a more environmentally and socially conscious manner.