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A European court ruled today that airlines flying through European airports will have to pay for the carbon dioxide they emit when they burn jet fuel. U.S. airlines say the European Union is trying to force other countries to reduce carbon emissions.

That ruling cannot be appealed, but as NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, that's not likely to end the dispute.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Europe currently limits carbon dioxide emissions from its major industries to curb global warming. Starting next year, airlines flying there must comply too. Airlines in the U.S. fought the idea in court and today, they lost.

Air travel contributes only about two to four percent of the CO2 emissions worldwide. But Pamela Campos from the Environmental Defense Fund, says that will grow.

PAMELA CAMPOS: This is an area where we're seeing very, very fast growth in emissions. And it's also an area that's technologically tough, so we need to start now.

JOYCE: 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. Nancy Young is the group's environmental director.

NANCY YOUNG: U.S. airlines have improved their fuel efficiency 115 percent since 1978. And so, to get more carbon emissions reductions, the Europeans are essentially imposing a tax.

JOYCE: 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. Young says airlines will decide how much of that extra cost to pass on to passengers.

Bill Hemmings, with the British group Transport and Environment, says the extra cost probably won't amount to more than about $20 a flight.

BILL HEMMINGS: It's a few euros, maybe 10 or 15 euros at the most, those sorts of fare fluctuations will happen thousands of times a day.

JOYCE: 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.

Again, the airline's Nancy Young.

YOUNG: We are not opposed to an appropriate climate regime. What we think though is that the E.U. scheme is both illegal and bad policy.

JOYCE: 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 Pamela Campos actually agrees with. But she argues that ICAO has dallied for years and she sees the court ruling as a kick in the pants.

CAMPOS: The opportunity here is to seize the momentum from Europe and break through the logjam.

JOYCE: 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.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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