07/07/2011 02:54 pm ET Updated Sep 06, 2011

Choices in the Air

Brussels, Belgium -- A European Union court has begun hearing a challenge by the U.S. airlines to the EU's requirement that airlines cap and reduce the global warming pollution created by their flights, which would apply to all flights that originate or land in the EU, even if they are non-European airlines and even if they emit most of their carbon outside European airspace -- over the North Atlantic, for instance.

Leaving aside the legal issues (which have more to do with how aviation is governed than with climate), the U.S. airlines are arguing that it would be impossible for them to meet the new program's requirement that they reduce their carbon pollution three percent by 2012. A spokesman for Boeing said there were only two ways to make the cuts: switching to planes with greater fuel efficiency or making extensive use of biofuels. Neither of those, he argued, would be feasible in just one year.

Although this week also saw some very exciting first tests of biofuels for aviation, it is true that those fuels won't be certified for routine commercial flying by next year. And the Americans also argue that the Europeans shouldn't be writing the climate rules for foreign companies flying over foreign airspace. The Europeans respond that their rules allow U.S. airlines to comply with a different, but equivalent, policy mix if they don't like Europe's carbon market.

It sounds reasonable to argue that there are only three ways to cut climate pollution from aviation -- more-efficient planes, lower-carbon fuels, or (horrors!) fewer flights. But it turns out that aviation carbon pollution is in fact much easier to cut than I would have imagined. What's more, the U.S. (and other countries) have a robust set of policy tools that could slash this pollution very quickly while making money.

A new study by Brighter Planet shows that the world's most-efficient big airlines emit one-third as much carbon as the least-efficient. Some of this difference is unavoidable -- short flights emit more carbon per passenger mile than long ones do, so regional carriers don't score well. And some factors can change only slowly. Airlines that chose to buy more-efficient planes in the past are polluting less now. But a great deal of the difference turns out to be due to factors that airlines do control and that can change in the short run: how full are their planes, what percentage of their passengers are on non-stop flights, how effectively they integrate passenger and air freight traffic, and how much of each plane they devote to first and business class. (An additional climate factor not mentioned by Brighter Planet is that night flights are much worse for the climate than day flights, because in the daytime jet contrails reflect more solar heat out into space, and at night those same contrails reflect heat downward, which reduces radiation.)

It also turns out that most of the steps an airline can take to minimize its carbon pollution are good for the overall economy and will lower the cost of air travel -- yet another case where climate action brings an economic bonus.

So why don't all airlines do these things? Because some choose to run less efficiently to attract higher paying customers. (Partially filled flights, more flights with smaller planes for more frequent departures, more business- and first-class seats). That's exactly the kind of competitive perversity that public policy needs to fix. The Europeans have done so with their carbon permits. The U.S. could simply change its aviation rules in ways that would encourage airlines to fly fewer planes, fill them up, run more non-stop routes, and, voila, the European target would be met.

While the most-efficient airlines were European low-cost leader Ryan and Cathay Pacific, American airlines didn't do badly overall. Continental ranked #4, United #5. (Southwest, a well-run company, was #17 because it relies on lots of short hops with few non-stops and uses inefficient Boeing 737s.)

But while American airlines are competitive when it comes to carbon emissions, the American aviation industry is about to vanish from the front ranks. At the recent Paris air show, Europe's climate-conscious airframe manufacturer Airbus cleaned Boeing's clock, placing $72 billion in orders for new planes, versus Boeing's $22 billion. The reason for Boeing's shabby showing? It's failure to offer a fuel-efficient competitors to the snazzy new Airbus A320neo, which gets 15 percent more passenger miles on a gallon of jet fuel. And the reasons for that failure? They appear to be twofold. Boeing has spent the past decade focusing too heavily on short-term profits and underinvesting in R&D. But, perhaps more importantly, thanks to Europe's climate-action culture, it simply never occurred to Airbus that its next-generation 320 wouldn't need to be more fuel-efficient.

The consequences of this failure are enormous for the American economy -- about half a million jobs that would have been created in the U.S. will now go to Europe instead. That will be a huge blow to the American manufacturing sector, and it's likely to be permanent. Meanwhile, Boeing has been spending its time and energy trying to break its unions by relocating manufacturing out of Seattle. Airbus, unsurprisingly, is highly unionized.

So once again, even as fossil-fuel prices force American companies that use fuel to buy innovative, low-carbon products like the Airbus A320neo, the U.S. is losing the battle to manufacture those low-carbon innovations because of a combination of climate skepticism and short-term thinking.

Re-reading that last phrase, I realize it's actually redundant. What is climate skepticism, if not a particularly disastrous example of short-term thinking?