Open Skies?

| 29th March 2007
Late last week, the UK signed up to an historic contract between the EU and the US. Known as the EU Open Skies deal, it lifts restrictions on the number of airlines which can operate transatlantic flights from Europe to the US. John Stewart, the Chair of the charity AirportWatch, explains why this is a deal from a bygone age with an horrific cost for the planet...

The new ‘Open Skies’ agreement between the EU and America could double the number of passengers flying the Atlantic. According to the Brussels-based environmental group, Transport & the Environment, this would mean an extra 3.5 million tonnes of CO2 being emitted every year.

The agreement has liberalised transatlantic air travel. Until now it has been tightly regulated with only a few airlines permitted to operate agreed routes to and from a small number of airports. The new agreement, due to come into force in Spring 2008, would potentially allow any EU-based airline to fly from any city within the EU to any city within the US, and vice-versa.

One of the losers will be British Airways. It has relied heavily on its protected transatlantic routes out of Heathrow. Now other airlines will be permitted to challenge its dominance. The result of this competition is that transatlantic fares will fall. We may even see RyanAir and easyJet dashing across the Atlantic.

The agreement was hailed by EU officials, UK Government ministers and industry figures as an important breakthrough. As is normal on these occasions, they produced sky-high figures about what it would mean for the economy, without giving any hint as to how the figures were arrived at: 80,000 new jobs in the EU and US; benefits for UK consumers of up to £250 million a year.

These figures always need to be taken with a pinch of salt because they never factor in the economic costs of aviation. In the UK alone, these run into billions of pounds each year: £9 billion lost to the Exchequer through tax-free fuel and VAT-free products; costs of up to £16 billion for the impact on climate change, local air pollution, noise and biodiversity.

The Open Skies agreement will worsen these social and environmental impacts. The pressure for expansion at Heathrow, where already a plane lands every ninety seconds, will become acute. Residents around other airports, too, will experience more flights and more noise as operators compete for a chunk of the lucrative transatlantic market.

But it is the impact on climate change which could be the most telling. Aviation is already the fastest-growing contributor to human-induced global warming. It is expected that emissions from the EU’s international flights will increase 150% from 1990 levels by 2012, cutting deep into the EU’s other efforts to curb climate change.

This is an agreement rooted in a bygone age. Negotiations first started in 1977, at a time when the environmental impacts of aviation were less apparent. In 2007 it has become a stark symbol of the hypocrisy of governments. The deal has been agreed just weeks after EU leaders pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020. In the UK, it came during the week when Gordon Brown hailed the ‘green’ measures in his Budget.

A sustainable solution to aviation would have a very different starting point: an international agreement to tax aviation fuel, impose VAT and introduce an emissions charge and a noise tax which reflect the environmental costs of aviation. Ideally, done within a system of contraction and convergence and carbon credits.

Such a framework would reduce the number of aircraft criss-crossing the world. In particular, it would cut the amount of flying done by the rich world. And it would be especially good at deterring frivolous flying. The Open Skies agreement threatens to do the very opposite. As the leader writer in the Glasgow Herald put it: “what is good for the EU citizen planning a weekend shopping trip to New York is not good for the planet’s climate.”

John Stewart is the Chair of AirportWatch and an environmental campaigner.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2007

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