EU taxonomy for aviation: Will Von der Leyen rubber stamp the biggest act of aviation greenwashing in decades?

Jo Dardenne — February 20, 2023

The European Commission is about to stick a green investment label on thousands of highly polluting planes, it must reverse course.

If a green fund invested in an efficient coal plant and boasted to investors that it was green, they would not be fooled. So why is European Commission President, Ursula Von der Leyen, falling for it when the same trick is applied to planes?

The aviation industry is lobbying hard to ensure it gets the decision it wants on green criteria for aviation in the EU taxonomy. If they succeed it will be a disaster for the climate and one of the biggest acts of aviation greenwashing in living memory.

The EU taxonomy establishes which investments are environmentally sustainable. It is a tool that should be the ‘gold standard’ for guiding ethical, sustainable investment, and aviation is one of the sectors under consideration. The draft criteria recommended in 2022 for aviation allows green investments to flow into ‘efficient’ aircraft – even though they will fly exclusively on fossil fuels.

Sure, it’s better to fly fuel efficient planes, but the emissions savings from them are only around 15-20%. Critically, this has not stopped CO2 emissions from the sector growing exponentially in recent decades. CO2 emissions increased by 129% between 1990 and 2017 despite energy efficiency of new aircraft improving by 18% over the same period.

Investments in more efficient aircraft would happen with or without the taxonomy. Airlines constantly renew their fleets to save fuel costs. So the taxonomy would simply put a green label over aviation’s business as usual, and allow green investments to flow to a fossil fuel dependent industry.

Aircraft manufacturers will be heavily impacted by the taxonomy criteria. Recent calculations by Transport & Environment (T&E) show that if this criteria is adopted, it could greenwash over 7,000 Airbus aircraft. This represents over 90% of Airbus’ future aircraft orders, despite them still running exclusively on fossil kerosene in the next decade.

The taxonomy also has implications for airlines. Today, an airline’s fleet is barely taxonomy compliant, but allowing these aircraft to be labeled sustainable could greenwash up to 58% of some airlines’ fleet. T&E data shows that over a third of Air France and Lufthansa’s fleets would be considered green by the end of this decade.

This criteria is based on recommendations made by the Platform on Sustainable Finance. T&E was part of the Platform but, along with other NGOs, left the Platform citing political interference by the European Commission, which acted against evidence despite its legal obligation to follow science-based advice.

Despite accepting the final text related to aviation, this criteria was far from what T&E had initially proposed. We pushed hard for technologies that actually lead to substantial emissions reductions: zero-emission aircraft and Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), with high sustainability criteria. The final draft mentions these but they are not central to the criteria.

There was nothing disruptive or groundbreaking in what we proposed. It simply ensured that zero-emission technology and SAFs qualify for much needed green funding in order to kick start the industry.

Back in 2022, it seemed inevitable that aviation was to be included as a sector in the Taxonomy as a whole. We decided that some progress, however inadequate, was better than no progress. A few months later, things have shifted. The inclusion of the sector in the Taxonomy is back on the table and the greenwashing of an industry is no longer inevitable.

This offers an opportunity to question the very criteria that were agreed upon. They weren’t green back then and they still aren’t today. This is why T&E is calling on the European Commission to amend the criteria for aviation, and to ensure that not one cent of green investment goes towards greenwashing the industry.

The biggest players in the sector are now worried. They are desperately knocking on every door to ensure aviation is included in the taxonomy with the current draft criteria. This would be their green get out of jail card for the next decade, while they continue to operate fossil fueled aircraft that pollute our planet. President Von der Leyen cannot let this happen. Or she will have to rubber stamp an empty shell with almost zero climate benefit.

The European Commission must reconsider the criteria for aviation. These should strictly endorse new technologies with true emissions reduction potential. These are zero-emission aircraft and sustainable aviation fuels. Airbus and Europe’s airlines will fight it tooth and nail, but supporting these will be crucial for the future of green aviation.

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