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Many devils in the details

The EU's carbon tax on airplane emissions is one-tenth altruism and nine-tenths capitalism.

india Updated: Jul 11, 2012 22:46 IST

Hindustan Times

The next stage of a global struggle initiated by the European Union's (EU) unilateral attempt to impose carbon taxes on the world's civil aviation industry has begun. The US, which had originally supported the emerging economies in opposing such a carbon tax, now seems to have embraced the EU's compromise offer. Namely, that such a tax, along with a global cap-and-trade for airplane emissions, be imposed through the International Civil Aviation Organisation. While this may sound like a reasonable proposal, moving away from the EU's eco-imperialism to a more multilateral framework, there are enough devils in the details to make any emerging economy, India included, sceptical.

For BASIC countries — the emerging countries bloc that arose from the Copenhagen climate conference comprising Brazil, South Africa, India, China and Russia — there are two main objections to the global carbon tax schemes being proposed on airline travel by either the EU or the US. One is a matter of principle, the other a matter of implementation. The first is that the emerging economies have long insisted on the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities' being the basis of their climate change actions. This argues that developing countries cannot be expected to take on the same carbon-reduction burden as developed nations. There are sound reasons for this. Carbon cuts effectively means energy curbs and these are difficult for an economy on the fast track. And if rich nations achieved wealth by burning fossil fuels, they need to provide assistance to poorer nations if they are to avoid the same smoke-filled path of growth. Both the US and EU proposals toss aside this principle.

The second objection is how such a tax would be applied. At present, it would be applied on individual passengers. Such a plan would also insist on ever-tightening emission standards for aircraft. Consider which countries are experiencing the fastest growth in air passengers — the emerging economies. Then look at which countries would benefit from the sale of new aircraft to meet new carbon-efficiency requirements — the EU and the US. Indian officialdom is already of the belief, and sees support for this by statements by European leaders, that Brussels' missionary zeal about climate change is one-tenth altruism, nine-tenths capitalism. The Europeans see the green economy as a means to recapture the global lead they are losing in almost every other sphere — a view partially shared by the US. This would definitely explain the stark unilateralism and imperial hubris that has marked the airline emissions issues from the start. It would also strengthen the case for India and the other BASIC nations resisting the present carbon-in-the-sky plan in its present form.

First Published: Jul 11, 2012 22:42 IST

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