You may have noticed over the past year that its become far easier to hop on a US airline to fly across the Atlantic to Europe–the result of an “open skies” agreement, implemented in 2008, that leveraged principles of free trade into the air. Now those open skies are looking pretty turbulent as three of the biggest US airlines–United, Continental and Delta, along with the US Air Transport Association–pursue a lawsuit attempting to block Britain’s effort to impose emission limits on the airline industry.

The UK is the first European country to begin executing a plan by the European Union to reduce emissions from aviation. Air travel contributes about three percent of Europe’s total greenhouse gas emissions, but according to the European Commission that rate has risen rapidly, some 87% since 1990, as air travel gets cheaper without accounting for environmental costs. The EU estimates that one person flying from London to New York and back generates roughly the same level of emissions as the average European does by heating their home for a year.

En route to Copenhagen, we wrote about the eye-opening experience of having an Air France pilot announcing our flight’s carbon footprint. Now it turns out that announcement may have been a portent of much tension to come: The US airline industry has adamantly opposed establishing emission limits on aviation in this country, and is now attempting to staunch the growing gap between the US and Europe’s approach to greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, Anglo-American divisions in the airline industry are emerging: British Airways has stated it could voluntarily reduce its emissions to half of 2005 levels over the next decade; and Virgin’s Chairman, Richard Branson, has stated he is willing to pay a carbon tax on his aviation business, and has steered some $3 billion in company funds into research projects for non-fossil sources for jet fuels and other greenhouse gas reduction measures.

The London lawsuit could be the first in a series of trans-continental legal battles to come, prompted by global industries facing very different approaches to climate change taken by Europe and the United States, where emission limits have thus far been stymied in Congress.

Over the next year, FRONTLINE/World and CIR will report on key issues of
climate change in a joint project–Carbon Watch–focusing on the multi-billion-dollar carbon trading market. We’ll look at which proposals to reduce emissions by 2020 really add up; at the hidden interests behind these solutions; and the new industry players.

Mark Schapiro specializes in international and environmental stories. His award-winning work appears in all media: in publications such as Harpers, The Atlantic, Mother Jones and Yale 360; on television, including PBS FRONTLINE/World and KQED; on public radio including Marketplace; and on the web. He is currently writing a book for Wiley & Co. investigating the backstory to our carbon footprints. His previous book, "EXPOSED: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power," reveals the health and economic implications of the tightening of environmental standards by the European Union.