Dollar paper airplaneMost underplayed economic story of the week: European aircraft manufacturer Airbus “trounced” the traditional U.S. behemoth Boeing at the Paris Air Show, booking a record $50 billion more in orders for new planes. The reason: commercial plane buyers’ demands for high fuel efficiency and low emissions. Here’s the Associated Press report on how Airbus racked up a whopping 730 new plane orders compared to a measly 142 for Boeing:

Airbus has cashed in on airlines’ desire to reduce sky-high fuel costs and cut their carbon dioxide emissions. Airbus says the A320neo is 15 percent more fuel efficient than rival aircraft like Boeing’s 737 … Airbus’ success cast a long shadow over Chicago-based Boeing, which recorded only $22 billion in orders and commitments, and raised questions over the U.S. planemaker’s ability to compete in a market dominated by concerns over high fuel prices. 

That giant sucking sound you hear is approximately 1 million well-paying American jobs leaving Boeing factories in Seattle and other parts of America and heading to Airbus facilities in Toulouse, Seville, and Hamburg (job numbers include both direct, indirect, and induced and are estimates based on numbers from University of Massachusetts, the Center for American Progress, Boeing, and other sources).

This is Europe’s green dividend: the cash and jobs the continent is reaping from its strong climate law and a culture that’s committed to planet-friendly innovation. It’s a lonely economic bright spot in an economy still dealing with the aftershocks of recession, real estate bubbles, and overly cautious fiscal policy.

The extent to which green innovation has permeated European business was on display in an exclusive Grist interview with Airbus’ Martin Fendt after the Paris Air Show. When I asked why his company had decided to invest so much time, money, and energy in focusing on fuel efficiency and low carbon, he didn’t know how to respond at first, because low carbon and fuel efficiency are so integrated into Airbus’ culture. But he went on:

It’s quite self-explanatory — at Airbus, we want to reduce CO2 emissions, increase performance of the aircraft, and help reduce the amount airlines need to spend on fuel. In every one of those “boxes,” there’s a benefit to having less fuel consumption: We get 15 percent better fuel efficiency, that means you can fly 15 percent further, emit 15 percent less CO2 per passenger mile, and you don’t have to carry as much fuel for a given mission. It’s a win-win-win-win.

Of course, there are other factors at play here too. As Rick Perlstein wrote in his seminal essay “The Stockticker and the Superjumbo,” Boeing is still paying for abandoning its once-successful strategy of long-term investments in innovative, groundbreaking products like the 747 jumbo jet in service of short-term profits meant to goose its quarterly earnings. Meanwhile, Airbus has maintained a decades-long commitment to the kind of painstaking, long-term R&D that helped it deliver the star of the Paris Air Show, the hyperefficient A320neo.

These days, of course, there’s not much difference between investing for the future and investing in green.

Unfortunately, based on the reaction from both sides of the political spectrum, I’m not sanguine about America’s ability to learn from this latest economic setback.

The far right’s perhaps predictable response didn’t look at the situation as it was, but merely invoked Tea Party economic mythology to blame Boeing’s setback not on a lack of government efficiency incentives, obsession with quarterly profits, or management lapses, but … labor unions.

According to this version of the story, Boeing’s failure is attributable to an eight-week strike in 2008 that delayed deliveries of some of its 787s (yes, that’s three years ago), and because the National Labor Relations Board is asking questions about Boeing’s decision to move some operations away from its unionized workforce to right-to-work South Carolina, a move seen as illegal retaliation for the strike by union members. In this worldview, there’s just no way could it have been Boeing’s series of heroic scandal-plagued, stock-price-chasing CEOs or America’s lagging green business culture. Like most Tea Party conceits, this one defies the experience of pretty much every other reality-based observer.

It also doesn’t make sense on another level: Bluntly, our country has nothing on Europe when it comes to strikes. Airbus has experienced at least as many labor actions as Boeing, but it doesn’t seem to have stopped the company from delivering the fuel-efficient planes airlines want to buy.

I wish I could report that the president was providing a counterweight to this anti-innovation attitude, in the same way he has signaled that he’s going to force American auto companies to achieve moderately ambitious increases in fuel efficiency. But just as Airbus was drubbing Boeing at the Paris Air Show, the Obama administration took the opportunity to announce that it would insist that Europe-bound flights on U.S. carriers be exempted from European laws requiring them to cut their emissions. If you can’t beat ‘em, unleash the lobbyists.

Meanwhile, a new study shows that the most efficient airlines burn less than half the amount of fuel as the worst — showing that the big emitters can easily meet European requirements and probably save money by cutting fuel costs.

The bottom line is this: America will lose more and more jobs as long as American government responds to urgent economic and environmental wake-up calls as further excuses to coddle and comfort polluting industries as they fall further behind their global competitors. Unless we get government and business move quickly to green innovation, that sucking sound is just going to get louder.   

Beau Wittmer contributed research to this article.