China has moral high ground over “dirty skies”

February 6, 2012

John Foley
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own

China is fighting for its right to pollute. The government has banned Chinese airlines from paying a pointless new European emissions tax. The argument isn’t really about the environment. It’s about China’s “don’t intervene” foreign policy, which also led it to veto a U.N. resolution against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Feb. 4. This time China has the moral high ground.

China’s view is simple: stay out of our business and we’ll stay out of yours. It explains a tolerance for unsavoury regimes in Syria or Sudan. Beijing has used its Security Council veto only a handful of times since 1971, when it took over from Taiwan. But in the eyes of rich countries which accept in a “duty to protect”, even occasional non-intervention looks callous. China blocked U.N. moves against regimes in Myanmar and Zimbabwe, and abstained on anti-Taliban measures in 2000.

The EU’s new airline pollution tax is a new riff on that theme. From Jan. 1, airlines landing or taking off in European airports must pay for the CO2 they emit for their entire flight. So a flight from Beijing to London must pay the EU for gases it emits over Kazakhstan, Mongolia and even China. From a Chinese perspective – and an American or Indian one – that looks like intervention in other countries’ affairs.

In this case, Beijing looks about right. True, the EU tax punishes a British airline flying from London to Shanghai as much a Chinese one. But it unilaterally makes airlines pay EU member-states for something that happens above other countries. In effect, the Europeans are claiming sovereign rights over foreign skies. Regardless of China’s weak record on global warming action, or the possibility of lost orders for Airbus, the EU should yield on principle.

Chinese principles may yet be modified for the sake of global harmony. Beijing’s says its airlines can’t pay the tax “without official permission”, leaving space for negotiations. But as China gets richer and more powerful, other countries will have to pay more attention to its view of sovereign rights. The “dirty skies” row shows that’s not always a bad thing.

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This author should have taken the trouble to read the judgment of the European Court of Justice, which rejected the complaints of various airlines this past December. The EU is not making airlines pay “for something that happens above other countries”. Airlines are charged for carbon emissions only if they arrive at or leave from a European airport. The pollution charge is applied only within EU jurisdiction – although it is calculated based on the total emissions emitted during an entire flight. This is a reasonable application of the polluter pays principle. Countries have a sovereign right to exercise their own laws within their own jurisdictions. If an airline wishes to fly into or out of the EU, it has to accept EU laws, including laws which impose a penalty on pollution.

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