A European court ruled Wednesday that airlines flying into and out of European airports will have to pay a price for the carbon dioxide they emit when they burn jet fuel.
U.S. airlines, which had been fighting the idea in court, say the European Union is trying to force other countries to reduce carbon emissions. Europe currently limits carbon dioxide emissions from its major industries to curb global warming. The ruling cannot be appealed, and the decision likely to end the dispute.
Air travel contributes only about 2 to 4 percent of the CO2 emissions worldwide. But Pamela Campos, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, says that will grow.
"This is an area where we are seeing very, very fast growth in emissions and it's also an area that's technologically tough so we need to start now," she says.
As air traffic has climbed, so have emissions. But Airlines for America, which represents the U.S. industry, says U.S. airlines have done their part by becoming more fuel-efficient.
"U.S. airlines have improved their fuel efficiency 115 percent since 1978," says Nancy Young, the group's environmental director, "and so to get more carbon emissions reductions the Europeans are essentially imposing a tax."
Young says it's not fair to impose Europe's solutions on the rest of the world. She adds that paying the European Union for emissions could add up to about $3 billion by 2020. She says airlines will decide how much of the extra cost to pass on to passengers.
Bill Hemmings, a program manager with the British group Transport and Environment says the extra cost probably won't amount to more than about $20 per flight.
"It's a few euros, maybe 10 or 15 euros at the most on long haul flights, and a few euros on short haul flights," Hemmings says. "I mean those sorts of fare fluctuations will happen thousands of times a day."
But opponents, which include the Obama administration and at least 20 other governments, say it's not really the cost they're going to the mat for.
"We are not opposed to an appropriate climate regime," says Young. "What we think, though, is that the EU scheme is both illegal and bad policy."
The airline group would prefer to work out an emissions agreement through the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO. It's a U.N.-based organization that governs air travel policy for most of the world.
And that's a goal that Environmental Defense Fund lawyer Campos actually agrees with, but she argues that ICAO has dallied for years. She sees the court ruling as a kick in the pants.
"The opportunity here is to seize the momentum from Europe and break through the logjam at ICAO and put in place a broad-based system that captures a much bigger percentage of the world's warming pollution from airplanes." She says.
The Obama administration is with the airlines in this so far, and could make it a diplomatic issue at the U.N.'s aviation organization.