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European airlines face turbulence as continent gets tougher on emissions

A KLM aircraft is seen at Fukuoka Airport in Hakata Ward, Fukuoka, in this file photo taken on April 4, 2013. (Mainichi/Masashi Mimura)

BRUSSELS -- An ill wind blows for the airline industry in Europe.

Moves by ecologists to refrain from flying as a way to combat climate change is becoming more widespread, and it appears new environmental taxes will be introduced on airline fares.

Some operators have even started bizarre campaigns to encourage passengers to use their services less.

"Do you always have to meet face-to-face?", "Could you take the train instead?" asks KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Europe's oldest carrier, in its "Fly Responsibly" campaign launched at the end of June. It calls for customers to consider taking the train, which produces fewer harmful emissions, and proposes trying video conferencing instead to avoid non-essential travel.

The initiatives come after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called for individual action as a means to fulfill global warming prevention targets set by the international Paris Agreement.

The "Fly Responsibly" campaign is seen on this screen capture of the KLM homepage.

But an airline urging its own customers to refrain from using its services is an unusual development. When KLM started its campaign, it acknowledged that the airline industry is still a long way from reaching sustainability. So why is it doing this?

According to estimates by Japan's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, passenger aircraft produce carbon dioxide emissions in transit equivalent to roughly five times that of trains. The aviation field represents some 2% of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere globally, equivalent to the amount produced by Germany each year.

An industry organization that includes the worlds' airlines among its membership has set targets for the aviation business to reach a peak in emissions produced by 2020, but factors including rising population and the expansion of low-cost carriers means increases have not been stopped. Some predictions even suggest that emissions in 2020 will be nearly 70% higher than they were in 2005.

Competition to develop less environmentally harmful biofuels to replace fossil fuels the world has relied on until now continues, but it will take time to overcome the cost barriers the new fuels will incur. In western and northern Europe, issues around climate change have reached such a level of concern that they now affect policy platforms in elections.

The airline industry is also being looked upon with increased scrutiny by the general population, while it has enjoyed years of more relaxed restrictions than those placed on automobile businesses.

In July, the French government announced its plans for a new environmental tax on all flights taking off from the country, which will charge passengers a maximum of 18 euros on top of their ticket. The government says it intends to use the collected funds to bolster railways and other less environmentally harmful transport infrastructure.

Elsewhere, the Dutch government is currently lobbying the EU to introduce an environment tax on all airline passengers traveling within its member states. It has also prepared a version of the legislation to implement nationally if agreement cannot be reached among the bloc.

However, the moves have been met with a backlash; some say legislation by a single country on the airline industry won't lead to environmental improvements because passengers can simply use airports in neighboring countries to avoid new rules. Because European countries that participate in the Schengen Agreement allow people to cross their borders without the need for a passport or identity checks, it is easy to travel to another nation's airport by car.

KLM is also opposed to the introduction of environmental taxes on a country-by-country basis, and maintains that if multiple nations were to reach an agreement on such a tax, then the funds should be invested into the development of environmentally friendly technologies for the airline industry.

For this reason, KLM has attracted criticism from environmental activists, who says its "Fly Responsibly" campaign is nothing more than the business pretending to show concern for the environment.

(Japanese original by Kosuke Hatta, Brussels Bureau)

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