Global carbon emissions continue to increase, threatening future generations with catastrophic climate change. And while most of the world agrees that something needs to be done to curb our carbon emissions, several decades of international talks have provided little progress at curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Most famously, the minimally-ambitious Kyoto Protocol has done almost nothing to actually compel its signatories (amongst whom the United States and Canada are not counted) to make meaningful change in their emissions levels. It is not at all inappropriate to say that the world has been sitting on its hands for over fifteen years, hemming-and-hawing about how to prevent catastrophic climate change.
So given this backdrop of inaction, what should an activist concerned about this problem do? How can a committed environmentalist convince the countries of the world that change must occur now? Well, if you consider it possible for an entire section of a continent to be considered an “environmental activist”, the European Union has an answer to the inaction problem: boldly forge ahead with regulations in your own backyard. While still insufficient and not without faults, European efforts to seriously entertain the need to transition away from a fossil fuel economy are impressive, especially compared with the rest of the world. And the Europeans have found a way to make their own regulations matter for the rest of the world: by regulating the emissions caused by airplanes.
Beginning this year, the European Union (EU) will require any airlines flying in or out of European countries to participate in a cap-and-trade system designed to induce airlines to reduce (or at least stabilize) their overall greenhouse gas emissions (1, 2). While many of the measures taken to reduce emissions in Europe have mainly affected European industry and consumers, this new regulation has the potential to impact the global airline industry because Europe is a major hub for international flights. Not surprisingly, non-European countries (most prominently global economic powerhouses China and the United States) have cried foul, essentially accusing the European Union of taking unilateral action on climate change. Recent challenges to the requirement have been upheld in the European Court of Justice, setting up a showdown between the EU and other countries that promises to put airlines squarely in the middle of the dispute (1, 2, 3). Fear of a trade war, wherein other countries levy new taxes on European airlines or airplane manufacturers in retaliation for the new EU regulations, have shaken the airline industry.
So what should we make of the EU’s unprecedented action? Is the EU violating the national sovereignty of other nations by imposing its unilateral vanguardist policy, or is this a brave and noble act of altruism benefiting the rest of the world? One thing is for sure: this action, and potential future actions like it, have a greater potential to reduce global greenhouse emissions than any multilateral agreement we have seen thus far. In a sense, the Europeans were forced into this action. They have been at the forefront of the effort to gain the cooperation of all nations, who ought to be equitably sharing the economic burden of reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. They have sought on numerous occasions the cooperation of other global industrial giants like China, India, and the United States. These countries — who now call foul that Europe is imposing its will internationally — have refused to cooperate with the Europeans. The stalling, hand-waving, and outright refusal to cooperate demonstrated by the rest of the world jeopardizes the future of all citizens of the earth, and European actions represent a bold move on behalf of humanity. This sounds pretty altruistic to me.
There is another reason to label the EU’s new regulations scheme as altruistic: not only does it potentially benefit the whole of humanity, it does so at the risk of harming citizens of the EU. If countries like China and the United States follow through on threats to retaliate against the EU with economic sanctions, citizens of the EU countries may suffer for their principled stance. And isn’t this the true definition of an altruist, an entity willing to incur costs to itself in order to provide benefits to the larger group?
I would be the first to say that a multilateral agreement on capping all forms of greenhouse emissions (airline emissions, while increasing faster than other sources, represent only a small fraction of overall emissions) would be far superior to the EU’s unilateral regulation. But based on the consistent behavior of other countries, a multilateral agreement was not an option on the table. The only option available for a principled citizenry was the option taken by the Europeans: to bravely regulate where it could.