Carbon Taxation of Airplanes
Last week, the European Union decided to delay carbon emissions taxation on airplanes operating into the EU from outside its borders, which brought a cheer from NBAA and other aviation groups. And well it should, since the EU's so-called Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) is a toweringly bad idea. But anyone who thinks this is the end of aircraft being targeted as carbon polluters is either ill-informed or naïve. The EU's climate commissioner merely said the decision was delayed a year to give the world aviation community time to figure out an alternative.
Basically, the ETS slaps on a levy to pay for carbon emissions for aircraft operating in the EU and the plan had been to extend this to aircraft operating into Europe from outside its borders. This has obviously raised the ire of other countries as a violation of sovereignty to the extent that the U.S. House of Representatives voted to bar U.S. airlines from paying such levies. If that had the weight of law—and I doubt that it could have—U.S. airlines operating into Europe could find themselves in an Alice in Wonderland of conflicting international law.
This profound silliness shows how absurd and utterly polarized the discourse over carbon emissions and climate change has become. In Europe, the member countries of the EU are taking atmospheric carbon load seriously enough to actually legislate to control it and even if the current law doesn't stick, something eventually will. In the U.S., we haven't yet gotten past the stage of shrill anti-science deniers more or less controlling the conversation. In my view, two events will change that: One is Hurricane Sandy, the other the recent election. Not that blame for Sandy can be traced directly to carbon emissions, but the extensive damage it caused to major northeastern cities puts a data point on the climatologists' predictions that higher carbon dioxide concentration and its associated warming would cause ever more extreme weather events. Noted.
It's still fashionable in this country to rail against the carbon and climate connection being a huge hoax. If you'd like rail yourself, be my guest; the comment section can be your personal playground. Increasingly, however, the views of the hoaxers—even if they're right in principle if not fact—aren't going to carry much weight. Credible or not, markets are adapting to a warmer world where 100-year storms will come every five or even two years. Insurers have been and will continue to structure their—and our—premiums accordingly. It won't matter if you deny anthropogenic global warming, you'll be paying for it nonetheless.
Airplanes are especially juicy targets in these skirmishes because they burn a lot of fuel and, in the case of jet transports, exhaust CO2 into the upper levels of the atmosphere. And given how willing the EU is to carbon-tax airplanes, you can't help but wonder if the burghers in Brussels believe that aircraft are actually nothing but discretionary luxuries. States outside the EU—such as developing countries like China and India—have been heard to complain that the EU's ETS is discriminatory and lines the union's pockets without doing much to reduce carbon emissions.
I think they're right, but for the wrong reasons. In theory, taxation can change behavior in a way that favors the public good. For example, higher fuel taxes encourage markets to offer more economical vehicles and/or encourage development of public transit. There's an upside to it. But all the carbon tax does is penalize. There's no upside because the argument that lower emissions from airplanes will impact climate outcome is utterly unconvincing, in my view. Yes, it might spur jet engine makers to develop more efficient products, but they are already under immense pressure from their customers—the airlines—to improve fuel efficiency. In the aggregate, all additional carbon taxation will do is dent the global economy with no discernible benefit. So why pursue these dead ends?
Personally, I've read the data and understand the theories. I've accepted the AGW reality. But like many (if not most) people on the planet, I'm not doing a thing to reduce my carbon footprint, which already makes a Sasquatch paw look like a ballerina. My Prius-driving neighbor, in the guise of feel-good environmentalism, is doing little more that's meaningful. If you happen to own and fly your own airplane burning, say, 1500 gallons of fuel a year, you're even worse. How to come to terms with this? Will burning 1400 or 1200 gallons make a difference in the outcome of climate change? Does this sound like a compelling argument to you? It doesn't to me.
In that context, pilots who consider themselves environmentalists have some thinking to do. While it's laudable to avoid being a profligate spewer of carbon where practical, the real choice is much more practical, it seems to me. And that's to accept that these efforts will have minimal effect, if any, on the overall climate outcome and to simply prepare for living in a warmer world. If all those houses washed away during Sandy are rebuilt in the same places to the same code and structural standards, you'll witness insanity expressed in concrete block and 8-foot studs.
My guess is they won't be. We're already seeing a trend toward more stringent and realistic code standards that reflect climate reality, forced by the insurance companies. Even new hangars in Florida have more steel than they did a decade ago, when flimsy was fine. I suspect vulnerable infrastructure like roads, tunnels and even airport runways will be rebuilt and hardened with future flooding in mind.
That makes more sense to me than a completely arbitrary tax on aircraft emissions. But then again, maybe I'm as loony as those commissioners in the EU.