IT’S EASY to see it as another instance of overbearing government in Europe: No longer content to tax their own citizens at high rates, European authorities now want to add yet another charge to the airline tickets that travelers pay to get to and from the continent — even on American or Chinese airlines.
American carriers have challenged the scheme in court, and many other countries have complained. China is so appalled that its government is barring its airlines from paying the new fees, its state news agency announced.
But the real story isn’t as disturbing as it seems.
In 2005, Europe began charging for the carbon emissions its economy produces. Both Republicans and coal-state Democrats have made this seem like a wacky socialist plot, but any good economist will tell you that carbon charging can be an extremely efficient way to reduce pollution. Aviation accounts for only 3 percent of world carbon emissions. But that share is going up fast. So it’s understandable the Europeans would want to bring the sector under their carbon cap. Want to fly to Europe? Pay a price for the air pollution emitted to get you there, which, for now, isn’t all that much — less than $3 a ticket for a flight from Beijing to Brussels.
America and other countries not in the European Union counter that Europeans shouldn’t be able to charge for emissions produced outside E.U. airspace, or, China seems to believe, at all for non-European planes. The answer, though, isn’t to scrap the whole program for everyone but E.U. carriers. Doing so would put European airlines at an unfair disadvantage and tear a hole in European anti-carbon efforts. Nor should the Europeans tempt an unproductive trade war by pressing forward no matter what.
The best way to solve this dispute — for world trade and for the environment — would be for America, China and others to put a price on carbon emissions on their own territory and airspace, in which case the Europeans wouldn’t charge them. But that’s politically impossible.
The parties, then, must sort out their differences at the International Civil Aviation Organization, the relevant international forum. Both sides have to give: If America and other nations are willing to expedite negotiations and compromise on whether and how their airlines are charged, the Europeans should be willing to accommodate concerns about inappropriately taxing travel over sovereign, non-E.U. airspace.
The E.U. won’t start collecting its fees until next year, but it will have to change its law before then if a negotiated compromise requires altering the system. Instead of continuing to issue threats, all sides should get to work.