T&E: ‘Airlines barely pay for their CO2 emissions in Europe’

Low-cost airlines pollute more than ever, the NGO Transport & Environment (T&E) denounces in a new report. All passenger flights taking off in Europe last year emitted as much CO2 as 80 million petrol cars in one year.

However, airlines, according to the NGO fighting for more environmentally friendly transport, had to pay for less than a quarter of these emissions through emissions trading schemes. “Passengers pay more for their coffee at the airport than some airlines pay for their emissions,” Transport & Environment says.

Ryanair is again the biggest CO2 emitter

According to the study, Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair was the biggest CO2 emitter among airlines in Europe in 2023 for the third year in a row, followed by German Lufthansa and British carrier British Airways.

Ryanair and Wizz Air, a Hungarian budget airline, polluted more than ever last year. Ryanair emitted 15 Mt of CO2 in 2023, 23% higher than the pre-COVID level, whilst Wizz Air’s emissions grew 40%. Ryanair carried 181,8 million passengers last year. Its ambition is to grow to 300 million passengers a year over the next decade.

However, Ryanair pays more than half of its emissions through emissions trading, compared to less than a fifth for traditional airlines. The study also shows that 20 airlines – European legacy carriers and the biggest third-country carriers – are responsible for a larger share of emissions than that of over 400 airlines flying from Europe combined.

78% of aviation’s CO2 emissions aren’t priced

If emissions trading had been applied to all 6,7 million passenger flights departing European airports last year, the airlines would have had to pay some 13 billion euros for their CO2 emissions at average prices.

That is because, for example, the emissions trading system applies only to flights within Europe, while long-haul flights account for more than half of all emissions, and because member states hand out many allowances to airlines for free.

Without those exemptions, for example, Lufthansa would have paid over 800 million euros for its CO2 emissions last year. Now, it pays as little as 130 million euros. As much as 78% of aviation’s CO2 emissions weren’t priced last year.

“The low-cost business model is driving unsustainable growth in the sector,” says Jo Dardenne, aviation director at T&E.

“We were lured into thinking that airlines would build back better after Covid, but with this exorbitant increase of pollution by budget airlines, ‘green’ aviation will never see the light of day. Clean technologies, like sustainable aviation fuels, won’t be able to keep up with the growth of Ryanair, Wizz Air, and others.”

Emissions trading is to be applied to all flights from the EU

“More than a decade after the CO2 market was introduced for aviation, the system still falls short of encouraging more environmentally friendly flying,” Dardenne continues.

The NGO calls for emissions trading to be applied to all flights from European airports, including those to outside Europe. It also calls for a paraffin tax, for short-haul flights to be replaced by train connections, and for emissions other than CO2 to be monitored because they “warm the planet at least as much as CO2.”

Last year, Europe’s most frequented route was London-Dublin, with approximately 44 flights a day (one-way). By plane, you travel 1h25 over the roughly five hundred km between the two cities. By train, the journey takes about 10 hours. The second busiest route was London-Amsterdam Schiphol, with more than 43 flights departing every day. If you fly, the travel time is 1h15, but there is also a direct four-hour train alternative. Of course, one has to keep in mind the waiting times at airports, too.

The five most polluting routes departing from Europe were all intercontinental, meaning they are not priced under the EU, Swiss, or UK’s carbon market, which only applies to flights within Europe. As a result, no airline had to pay for its emissions on the most polluting route departing from Europe—London-Dubai—even though it accounted for 2.3 million tons of CO2 last year.


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