By Kevin McDonald
Air travel has increasingly landed at forefront of the debate over global warming and the impact of carbon emissions from transportation. Indeed, a January 26, 2013 article in the New York Times blared “Your Biggest Carbon Sin May Be Air Travel.” At the heart of this debate is the European Union’s attempt to impose a carbon tax on airplanes bound to or from EU airspace in an attempt to force air travelers to internalize the purported cost of carbon emissions in the hopes of altering behavior and incentivizing innovation to reduce emissions. This plan raises significant issues, however. The policy infringes on the ability of each nation to set its own taxing and regulatory decisions and encourages retaliatory actions that muddy the waters. It more importantly reduces the interconnectivity of the global economy by making travel more expensive and highly regulated. Although the European Union has the right to make taxing and regulatory choices to pursue policy decisions on behalf of its citizens, its willingness to try to extend this policy to the citizens of other polities threatens to disrupt global exchange of ideas and sovereignty.
The link between the need for carbon emission reductions and sustainability has become tightly intertwined due to the fact that most policymakers consider carbon emissions, which trap atmospheric heat, as the leading cause of global warming. They in turn consider global warming the biggest threat to the sustainability of global development. The European Union, insulated from the pressure of electoral politics has been a global leader in attempting to address carbon emissions. This new airline carbon tax, due to take effect under EU rules in 2014, requires all airlines to pay a tax based on the total mileage of all flights departing or landing in the EU, including the portion outside EU airspace.
The first key issue of this policy is that it abrogates the sovereign authority of countries over their own airspace. By taxing a plane from Dallas to Frankfurt on its total flight miles, the EU is asserting its authority even over the section of the portion of the flight from Dallas to the shores of the UK. Transportation represents the movement of goods and ideas, which is essential the success of a vibrant global economy. Countries must jealously guard the prerogative of their citizenry to pass unimpeded because without that freedom, the sustainability of their nation’s innovation and economy is threatened.
The second, more challenging issue is the validity of the tax to achieve a more sustainable air travel system. A tax would undoubtedly reduce air travel demand and encourage airlines and manufacturers to introduce innovation into airplane design. However, a global solution where a working majority of leading nations could agree to shared goals should be the end goal. Piecemeal standards and beggar-thy-neighbor emissions taxes could result in a jaded public. Instead, policymakers should work together, especially when it may be possible to have technological innovation reduce emissions without actually forcing fewer people to travel.