Aviation’s ivory tower may be starting to fall

Jo Dardenne — December 16, 2022

How much progress was made in 2022 to clean up flying?

It’s a sad fact. The aviation sector has been untouchable for years. Any attempt to regulate its climate impact has ended as quickly as it began.

A few examples illustrate the point. Airlines don’t pay any tax for their fuel. Unlike truckers and motorists, airlines have never paid a single penny of duty on the fuel they uplift at airports. Some brave lawmakers are attempting to change this via the Energy Taxation Directive (ETD), but in vain. Negotiations are stalling as taxation matters require approval of all EU member states.

The sector has gotten away with nauseating amounts of greenwashing over the years. Carbon-neutral airports, green flights or low-emission airlines are but some of the many examples. The biggest joke of them all has been offsetting, which works on the assumption that consumers can compensate for the CO2 associated with their flight by funding carbon reduction projects elsewhere. But this is just an excuse for the aviation industry to keep polluting and justify their unabated growth.

The sector seems so untouchable because it is also the golden child of many European governments. This was clearer than ever during the COVID pandemic, when countries poured billions to save their beloved national carriers, even when most of them are not even public companies.

But in 2022, something changed. As the Fit for 55 legislation went from paper to law, as policy makers and citizens realised the unfair privileges aviation had been benefiting from, there were signs that the supremacy of the aviation industry was starting to weaken. And to the surprise of many, some airlines and industry players played a part in this.

It started with private jets. This summer, Kylie Jenner’s 17-minute flight on board a private jet caused controversy around the world. It spurred some internet users to stalk the flights of the very rich. As a result, regulating the use of private jets has been discussed at EU level and proposed for legislation in France and Belgium.

Then came the decision to ban three short-haul routes in France. The move in itself is pioneering. Three years ago, a flight ban was unthinkable. Now it is law. The real impact on emissions will be miniscule, but a precedent has been set. The short haul ban in France will only affect three routes (Paris-Orly to Bordeaux, Nantes and Lyon). Calculations by T&E show that those three routes represent 0.3% of emissions from flights departing from mainland France, or 3% of domestic emissions.

While these measures regulating demand are important, the biggest success came with green fuels. The EU is on the cusp of voting into law the first EU-wide mandate for green jet fuels. This will be key to reducing emissions in the long term. Some airlines even helped push the law through, showing signs that they are serious about regulating the climate impact of aviation. Ahead of a key vote in the EU Parliament in July, airlines and NGOs joined forces to call for a strict definition of sustainable aviation fuels, to ensure harmful biofuel feedstocks were excluded from the proposal. 

Another dent in the ivory tower came with an attempt to finally crack down on non-CO2 effects of aviation. Efforts to address the sector’s contribution to climate change have so far focused on CO2 emissions, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Non-CO2 effects account for two thirds of aviation’s total climate impact, but have escaped all forms of regulation to date. As of 2025, non-CO2 emissions will be monitored and legislation to regulate them is in the works. 

We’ve seen some successes, but the tower still stands. 

The largest chunk of aviation emissions come from long-haul flights. For the EU, these represent a whopping 60% of all aviation emissions. But they remain unpriced and unregulated. Just last week, EU negotiators voted on the carbon market for aviation. But the deal is meaningless. The carbon market will remain limited to intra-EEA flights. As a result, the largest chunk of Europe’s aviation CO2 emissions will remain unaccounted for.

The impunity of the industry even in a climate crisis can be traced back to Montreal. That’s where the UN aviation body ICAO sits – and the originator of the belief that international aviation emissions can only be regulated at the international level. Greenwashing by the aviation industry maliciously spreads from Montreal across the Atlantic and elsewhere. 

Back in September, at the ICAO’s General Assembly, members hailed an empty long-term 2050 net zero goal, with an accompanying offsetting scheme called CORSIA. CORSIA is a cheap and dubious scheme that has failed to effectively deal with aviation emissions. Despite this, EU member states continue to support this worthless offsetting scheme. 

We are entering a new post-Fit for 55 phase in aviation climate legislation. The mammoth climate package was a wake up call for the sector that climate action is inevitable. If the sector does not act now – and continues to stubbornly ignore large chunks of pollution – the transition will be much harder to achieve and the sector will inevitably lose its social license to operate. When that happens, aviation’s ivory tower will fall. 

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