Price of flying

Unlike motorists, airlines don’t pay a cent in tax when they fill up their fuel tanks in Europe. This has helped make aviation the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. It's time they paid for their pollution.

Aviation in the EU emissions trading system

The EU’s emission trading system (ETS) remains one of the few measures in place attempting to address the sector’s soaring emissions. Aviation was brought into the EU ETS in 2012, covering all flights to and from EU airports. Following significant international and industry pressure, the scope was reduced to cover intra-EU flights only (known as “stop the clock”) to give time for the UN agency which regulates aviation, ICAO, to agree on a global measure.

At its 2016 triennial assembly, ICAO adopted the outline of a global offsetting scheme known as Corsia. However the environmental integrity and economic viability of that scheme today is severely questioned. However, the exemption of flights to and from Europe was extended until 2024, despite massively contributing to EU airline emissions. By then, regulators in Europe will have to decide whether and how to integrate Corsia in EU law.

What is ICAO’s global market-based measure?

In October 2016 ICAO agreed the outlines of a global market-based measure to address CO2 emissions from international aviation, starting as a voluntary measure from 2021. The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (Corsia) aims to stabilise CO2 emissions at 2020 levels. The measure will be voluntary until 2027 and mandatory in nearly all states thereafter until 2035.

However its target will be achieved through the purchase of cheap offsets or alternative fuels. Offsets involve paying other sectors to reduce their emissions, rather than reducing your own. It has failed to work in the past, with the vast majority of offset credits purchased by entities subject to the EU ETS failing to deliver emission reductions. And it won’t work in the future as the Paris Agreement requires all-sectors to cut their emissions. It is highly unlikely that ICAO will put in place the effective safeguards needed to ensure only clean alternative fuels are used to deliver real emission reductions.

Corsia risks being used as an exercise in greenwashing, with states citing the need to respect a global consensus as an excuse not to adopt more effective policies. Research conducted for the EU institutions highlight that implementing Corsia would be the worst option for the climate.

How does the EU ETS work?

Each year, airline polluters have to surrender a number of permits under the EU ETS equivalent to the amount of CO2 they emitted in the preceding year. Polluters acquire permits through an annual allocation system and half of these permits are issued by member states for free. If airlines don’t have enough allowances to acquit their previous year’s emissions, they can buy additional permits at auction or from other companies having a surplus. 

Unlike Corsia, the EU puts a maximum cap on the CO2 emissions that can be emitted by restricting the number of permits available on the market. However emissions from aviation have grown over the cap since 2013, which meant the system provided no incentive for them to reduce their emissions.

Crucially, a reform introduced in 2017 agreed that the number of allowances granted annually to the aviation sector will start to decrease after 2021 and end in 2068, meaning the European aviation sector will eventually have to decarbonise. However, airlines still get more than half of their allowances for free and crucial reforms to the EU ETS are still needed to make it fit for purpose.

Does the inclusion of aviation in the EU ETS lead to big cuts in actual airline CO2 emissions?

Not at present. Until recently the ETS suffered from a gross over-allocation of permits, causing the price of allowances to crash. This gave airlines effectively unlimited access to cheap ETS credits, the cost of which hardly impacted on growth in any way.

However, reforms of the ETS in late 2017 resolved some of these issues, and saw prices almost triple in the space of a few months. They’re still short of the price level needed to drive significant reductions, so further reforms are needed. For example, the rate at which allowances are removed from the scheme could be sped up. 

Read T&E’s latest analysis of the state of the aviation ETS.

How to tax airline polluters?

This tool shows how taxing jet fuel, and better pricing aviation emissions, will drive airlines to be more efficient, switch to cleaner fuels and reduce their climate impact.

Aviation pricing tool