Britain could lose its ability to impose environmental taxes, restrictions and safeguards on airlines under a draft treaty between the EU and US which curtails the power of national governments. The draft treaty, meant to liberalise aviation, includes a little noticed clause requiring EU states to reach agreement with each other and with the US before taking measures to tackle noise or pollution from airlines.
The text of the draft "open skies" treaty, obtained by the Guardian, is likely to alarm environmental activists who argue that the seemingly unstoppable growth in air travel is among the main contributory factors to global warming. Aviation emissions rose by 12% last year and now account for about 11% of Britain's total greenhouse gas emissions - the fastest growing sector. The government's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, has described global warming as a bigger threat to the world than global terrorism.
The revelations come amid campaigns by environmental protesters to halt expansion plans at several British airports, including Heathrow and Stansted. Yesterday a convoy of more than 100 cars toured some of the villages that would be affected if proposals to build a £2.7bn second runway at Stansted, in Essex, are approved.
Article 14 of the draft treaty encompasses any environmental measures which could have "possible adverse effects" on the free traffic of aircraft. It says that signatories to the treaty must "recognise that the costs and benefits of measures to protect the environment must be carefully weighed". The clause states that any disagreement between countries must be referred to a committee comprising governments, airports and airlines. If this fails to produce consensus, the issue is referred to a three-person international arbitration panel.
Industry sources say US negotiators insisted on the clause's inclusion. America has vigorously opposed taxes on aviation fuel, or a proposed emissions trading scheme, because of fears that any extra expense will cost jobs and push several of its airlines - already under bankruptcy protection - out of business. Whitehall insiders say the transport secretary, Alistair Darling, wants the environmental article changed. A spokesman for the Department for Transport said: "We wouldn't sign anything that meant we couldn't implement an emissions trading scheme."
The treaty, however, will be subject to a vote by EU member states requiring 65% of countries to approve it. Britain will have no veto, although a senior EU official offered a cautious response yesterday: "This is a draft. There is a lot that is not yet satisfactory to the European commission and there is plenty of time to amend it."
The phenomenal success of budget airlines such as Ryanair, easyJet and bmibaby has seen the number of people passing through Britain's airports soaring by 76% over a decade, to 215 million in 2004. Critics of the aviation industry argue that it is effectively subsidised because, unlike road or rail operators, airlines are not required to pay tax on fuel. Some activists have suggested levying a fee on every airline ticket, which would be tailored according to the emissions of the flight. The proposed treaty would make any such levy impossible without transatlantic agreement. The wording of the text is so broad that even future restrictions on night flights at Britain's airports could become difficult for the government to implement without US permission, because of the impact on incoming flights from America.
Steve Hounsham, a spokesman for the green campaign group Transport 2000, said: "If this goes through, we'll have sold out to America's airlines."
A senior executive at one leading airline said: "The environment was one of the big, big issues that the two sides discussed. The European commission are much more concerned about it, much more in favour of measures to mitigate the impact, than the Americans are."
Talks towards "open skies" have been motivated by a desire to throw open routes in America and Europe to foreign airlines. Under the proposed deal, any American carrier would be allowed to operate flights between European cities. Any operator would be able to fly from Heathrow to the US - a privilege presently reserved for four carriers: British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, United and American Airlines. In return, Europe wants the US to drop a law preventing foreigners from owning more than a 25% share in any of its airlines.
Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat transport spokesman, said: "This could be a recipe for almost the permanent stalling of any environmental advances on aviation."
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