It looks like the Government has finally decided to drop the “Nice Guy” act.

The softly-softly approach it has adopted to most environmental issues, particularly the role of business in combating climate change, appears to have been replaced by a much more plain-speaking assault.

Environment minister Ian Pearson has rounded on the airline industry in general – serial Government baiter and Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary especially – for failing to tackle carbon emissions.

The fact that a fairly junior minister has been the first to open fire is something of a tried and trusted tactic by the Government. Send the infantry in for an initial raid and then bring in the big guns.

I think we can expect a senior Cabinet minister, possibly even Chancellor Gordon Brown himself, to follow up Mr Pearson’s criticism with an equally direct and possibly even more abrupt statement on what the industry needs to do in order to help the environment.

Mr Pearson said budget airline Ryanair was the “irresponsible face of capitalism” and singled out US airlines’ attitude to cutting emissions as “a disgrace” (http://environment.guardian.co.uk/).

Not surprisingly, Michael O’Leary has not been slow to respond to the criticism. It is just as inevitable that he has turned the tables back on the Government and started pointing the finger himself.

After all, this is the man who took on and beat the Irish government as it tried to scupper his fledgling airline and who still insists he plans to sue the British Government over the flight cancellations and delays caused by new airport security measures.

But the fact that the Government is clearly prepared to fight Mr O’Leary’s bile with a bit of personalised criticism shows that it is ready to change tactics. Gentle persuasion hasn’t proved too successful so far, in which case a little bullying might achieve the desired effect.

At the heart of the argument, which looks likely to intensify quite rapidly if Mr Pearson’s initial attack is followed by a heavy-hitter, is the fact that the EU is planning to include airlines in its carbon trading scheme. This will require the airlines to pay for exceeding their current level of emissions.

Flights within Europe will come under the jurisdiction of the Emissions Trading Scheme by 2011 and within 12 months of that deadline it will be expanded to include all international flights that arrive at or depart from an EU airport.

Airlines would be issued with pollution permits – those that cut emissions would be able to sell their surplus while an airline that increased its emissions would have to buy more permits.

The airlines aren’t prepared to accept such a scheme and warn the costs will simply be passed on to passengers. Just as they introduced new surcharges when the price of oil began spiralling upwards, so they will look to pass other additional costs.

In the short-term we can expect a fairly feisty war of words between the industry and politicians, with warnings and threats likely to be fired indiscriminately.

At the end of the day, however, it is likely to be the passengers who get caught in the crossfire.

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