Sky-High Protectionism?

BRUSSELS – A new controversy has emerged between the European Union and several of its main trade partners since the EU decided to include in its CO2 emission-control scheme all flights to and from its territory, including transcontinental flights. Airlines will need to acquire emission permits for their flights’ CO2 emissions.

China and the United States are outraged. Chinese airlines have delayed orders to purchase European aircraft. The CEOs of aircraft manufacturer Airbus and major European airlines have urged European leaders to step in. There is talk of a new trade war.

This is an important quarrel, because it is the first real clash in the debate on climate and trade. Not only are the motivations and arguments new, but suspicions about hidden agendas matter as much as substance.

It may seem strange, but the EU sees itself as a soldier of the common good. Why is a group of countries whose share in worldwide CO2 emissions is only 12% – and set to decline fast – aspiring to global leadership on the issue, despite US inaction and emerging-market countries’ reluctance to commit to binding emission-reduction targets?