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Would You Pay $57 More to Fly to London?

Ticket prices to Europe could rise if the European Union gets its way and starts charging American airlines for their flights' carbon emissions.

Let’s fly to London next month. Or maybe in October, when the weather is cooler. According to Kayak, it’ll probably cost us each somewhere between $600 and $750, once we’ve added in those taxes and fees. Sure, it’s not cheap, but we’re flying over the Atlantic ocean! We’ll be in Europe!

Want to come? And would it make a difference if I told you that instead of $600 dollars, we’d each have to pay closer to $715? Or to be more precise, $57 more, each way, than we’d otherwise pay?

That’s how much the airline industry estimates ticket prices from New York to London could rise if the European Union gets its way and starts charging American airlines for carbon emissions on flights to Europe. The EU’s plan, which is set to take effect in 2012, is to require airlines flying to, within, or from Europe to decrease their carbon emissions by 3 percent from 2004-2006 levels next year, and another 2 percent the year after that. If airlines can’t make the cuts, they can buy carbon permits in the EU’s carbon trading system to make up the difference.

The American airline industry balked at this plan, and the Obama administration has joined in the protest. The EU, their argument goes, has no right under international law to bully U.S. airlines, which are doing just fine at cutting carbon costs on their own. As Susan Kurland, an assistant secretary in the Department of Transportation, put it to a House committee yesterday, the administration would much prefer to work on this issue through “constructive international negotiation and mutual agreement.”

Indeed, the airline industry has been investing in next-generation fuels and airplane efficiency, but the reality is that flying is a dirty, carbon-intensive activity. A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found, for instance, that under the cap-and-trade program that died in the U.S. Senate in 2009, the airline industry would have simply paid more for fuel rather than change the way it does business. And under the cap-and-trade system proposed here, the Air Transport Association estimated its members would pay an additional $5 billion in 2012. The projected cost of carbon permits for American carriers under the European system is $3.1 billion by 2020.

That’s where that $57 comes from. It’s the amount airlines say they will have to charge each customer to make up for those fees. But flying is so cheap now that it’s not necessarily a bad thing that passengers will have to pay more for a jaunt across the Atlantic. Plus, more energy-efficient airlines will be able to offer cheaper flights. That’s why putting a price on carbon makes sense: It pushes people to buy tickets that are less costly, resulting in more business for environmentally friendlier airlines..

The Obama administration says that it’s on board with the idea of reducing carbon emissions, but that the EU’s trading program is not the right way to go about it. But if this isn’t the path forward, what is? Anyone who’s been following the international climate negotiations has good reason to be skeptical of the idea the Obama administration threw out—“constructive international negotiation and mutual agreement.”

At this point, I’d rather have the option of buying an airline ticket with a price that reflects the cost of carbon than waiting for international negotiators to do their thing. This isn’t a theoretical issue for me: I’m tentatively planning a trip to England next year. If paying for the huge amount of carbon that’s necessary to get me there means budgeting an extra $100 or so for a ticket, I’m okay with that. I just hope I’ll have the option of flying on an American airline: Right now, the House Transportation Committee is pushing a bill that would outlaw U.S. airlines’ participation in the EU’s carbon trading program. I imagine I’ll have to pay much more than $715, or even $865, to get to England if U.S. airlines stop flying there altogether.

Photo courtesy of flick user Daniel Gorecki

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