Ryanair is a top 10 emitter, but governments can stop other airlines joining it

Ryanair grabbed headlines earlier this month after it was revealed that it's now a top 10 carbon emitter in Europe. But for those of us working on aviation and climate, the news came as no surprise. Aviation emissions have been soaring for years. And as other sectors’ emissions decline, aviation has been climbing up the climate rankings. Aviation is the most carbon intensive mode of transport, Europe’s fastest growing source of emissions, and with its emissions having grown 26% in five years, Europe’s greatest climate failure.

But airlines such as Ryanair appearing as top emitters is the future of climate policy: we will likely see more airlines occupying the top spots among emitters, as other sectors speed up their emission cuts thanks to aggressive government measures such as the coal phase-out, electric car mandates and investment in renewables. If we are to avoid this, we need a total change of direction.

But that change of direction won’t come from the industry. These figures highlight the fact that, left to their own devices, airlines will only see their emissions continue to grow. Ryanair’s defence is that it operates some of the newest, ‘cleanest’ aircraft. That may be true, but such efficiencies did not stop their emissions growing 6.9% in 2018 – and a whopping 49% since 2013.

That’s because as flying becomes more efficient, it becomes cheaper, and as it becomes cheaper, more people fly. This is known in climate speak as the ‘efficiency paradox’ and it’s one of the main reasons for soaring aviation emissions. Airlines are only doing what they do best – burning kerosene in order to fly the maximum number of people the furthest distances. The latest figures show that it’s something they are very good at.

In the end, this cycle of more efficient aircraft burning ever more kerosene will only be broken when regulators step in. But, to date, European governments have decided to leave aviation untaxed and under-regulated. Airlines are allowed to buy kerosene tax free – a privilege no motorist enjoys when filling up with petrol – while plane tickets remain almost entirely exempt from VAT. At the same time governments continue to throw subsidies at new airports, new aircraft – including the A380 – and loss-making airports scattered around Europe.

European governments have been equally irresponsible when it comes to the soon-to-be-launched global offsetting scheme for international aviation. Offsetting – paying other people to cut your emissions instead of cutting your own – is the most discredited climate policy in the world. Decades of experience with offsetting have left us with forests that were actually burned down and dams which collapsed, to name just two examples.

That’s why the EU has decided to stop allowing offsets to be counted towards emission reduction climate targets from 2021 onwards, with the exception of the aviation sector, which will be permitted to use them if the global offsetting measure is measure is adopted.

If we want to cut and then bring aviation emissions to zero, we need to change the fuel we put into aircraft, because electric planes are decades away and planes sold today will still be operating in the 2050s.

Zero-carbon fuels do exist – but these will not necessarily be biofuels, which either drive deforestation or, if they do deliver emission reductions, are limited in supply. Rather, the greatest potential to decarbonise aviation fuels comes from new fuels know as synthetic kerosene. These are fuels produced using large amounts of renewable electricity and CO2 captured from the atmosphere. It’s not a new technology but because other sectors have easier paths to decarbonise, and because we haven’t been serious about decarbonising aviation, they haven’t gotten a look in.

The aviation industry, like any other industry, cannot decarbonise itself. The task is too great, and the time frame too short. These figures should shock governments into doing what they should have started doing decades ago – taxing the sector, and putting money and regulation into the technology that can bring its emissions to zero.

Ryanair is the first airline to break into the top 10 emitters, but it’s up to governments as to whether they will be joined by others.

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About the author

Andrew Murphy's picture

Manager, Aviation