Fly the Carbon Dioxide-Filled Skies

Fasten your environmental seatbeats, there are some rough skies over the European Union.
Airline CO2 emissions do more harm since they're released into the atmosphere at high altitudes. (AFP / Getty)
Jul 12, 2012
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

Reuters reports that the EU Commission is committed to finally tackling climate-killing carbon dioxide emissions from airlines.

In the absence of a global scheme to curb the deadly waste from the aviation sector, the EU “since January this year has been including all flights in and out of Europe in its Emissions Trading System (ETS),” which is a method for the allocation and trading of greenhouse gas emissions allowances throughout the EU. “The decision has led to an international outcry, including threats of a trade war, and the Commission has looked to ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization] to come up with an alternative scheme.”

MORE: Will the Aviation Industry and Climate Change Come in for a Smooth Landing?

If that all sounds like much ado about nothing, consider that, “The effect of the CO2 emissions of airplanes are two to three times higher compared to the emissions on the ground, because airplanes release the CO2 in high altitudes into the atmosphere, where they do much more harm,” according to

And in 2006, EUobserver said, “Greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation increased by almost 70% from 1990 to 2002, while in the EU, emissions from aviation increased by 87% between 1990 and 2006, according to the commission.”

MORE: The Galley of Environmental Outrages has observed that, “While the CO2 emissions from airplanes account for around three percent of the annual CO2 emissions from all fossil fuels and change the radiation by 28 milliwatts per square meter, the aviation contrails [the white clouds that you see in the sky as jets take off] are responsible for a change of around 31 milliwatts per square meter. The only difference is that CO2 has a longer life than that of the contrails, and can still continue to cause warming even hundreds of years down the road.”

Aviation groups have known for a while that the EU would impose more stringent regulations at some point. In 2009, they announced a plan to change the way commercial planes land in order to reduce CO2 emissions. USA Today reported at the time that, “By 2013 some 100 European airports will allow planes to descend all the way from cruising altitude to the runway in one smooth glide, saving up to 450 kilograms (992 pounds) of CO2 per landing . . . In all, airlines are hoping to save 500,000 metric tons (515 US tons) of carbon gas this way each year.”

As often happens, today’s controversy comes down to pride and money. Reuters said, “Apart from nations such as China and India, which have accused the European Union of trespassing on their sovereignty, airlines and aviation companies have said the scheme is a threat to them in a difficult business climate.”

Should the U.S. be following the EU lead and doing more about the airline industry’s CO2 emissions?

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