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E.U. can force U.S. airlines to buy carbon permits, court adviser says

US Airways and United Continental Holdings jets sit on the tarmac at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Virginia, on Aug. 26. A court adviser on Thursday said that the E.U. has the right to force U.S. airlines to buy carbon permits. (Andrew Harrer/BLOOMBERG)

The European Union has the legal right to force foreign airlines to pay for their carbon emissions, an adviser to Europe’s highest court declared Thursday.

Starting in January, any airline that lands or takes off in Europe will have to offset the greenhouse gases it emits during the flights by buying carbon allowances as part of the E.U. Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). The European Commission estimates that the carbon permits could add a cost of $2.66 to $15.96 per ticket over the coming decade.

The U.S. airline industry — along with the Obama administration, and airlines and governments from outside Europe — has fought to block the rules. The Air Transport Association of America, American Airlines and United Continental filed suit against the rules in the European Court of Justice, saying E.U. officials had overstepped their authority.

The Thursday opinion from Advocate General Juliane Kokott — which is not binding but often influences the final outcome of a case before the court — rejected that idea.

“E.U. legislation does not infringe the sovereignty of other states or the freedom of the high seas guaranteed under international law, and is compatible with the relevant international agreements,” the opinion read.

The high court is expected to make a decision on the case by early next year.

The Air Transport Association of America issued a statement Thursday, saying, “Today’s action is an important step in the court process, but, as it is a non-binding, preliminary opinion, it does not mark the end of this case. In complex cases such as this one, it would not be unusual for the full Court’s final opinion to vary from the preliminary opinion.”

Krishna Urs, deputy assistant secretary for transportation affairs at the State Department, said the administration will try to press for a global airlines carbon emissions standard instead.

“We, along with many other States, have clearly expressed our opposition to the E.U.’s plan, and we will continue to urge our European partners to work with us in the International Civil Aviation Organization to take positive steps to address climate change,” he said in a statement.

But both E.U. officials and several American environmental groups — some of which have intervened in the case on the European side — said the opinion would help them prevail.

Annie Petsonk, international counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund, noted that countries have tried for years to establish a global carbon emissions standard for airlines, without success. “Airlines operate in a global market, and the reality is that those markets will be increasingly carbon-constrained,” Petsonk said.

According to the European Commission, the policy is needed because emissions from airlines have doubled since 1990 and could triple by the end of the decade.

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.



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