Press Release

Some UK airlines polluting more than ever as emissions approach pre-pandemic levels

April 19, 2024

UK’s aviation emissions are returning to pre-pandemic levels. Last year, 940,000 flights departed from UK airports, emitting a total of 32 Mt of CO2.

940,000 Flights departing from the UK in 2023

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Analysis of UK aviation emissions by Transport & Environment (T&E) has found that aviation emissions are on track to return to pre-pandemic levels. Many budget airlines are now emitting more than they ever have with British Airways still dominating as the top polluting airline in the UK.

Nearly 940,000 flights departed from UK airports in 2023, producing 32 Mt of CO2 emissions. Compared to 2022, the number of flights increased by 16% and the number of emissions from those flights rose by 23%.

The UK is fast-approaching pre-pandemic levels of flying as 2023 saw 88% of 2019 flight numbers, and 89% of its CO2 emissions. This is concerning as the Government, via the Jet Zero Strategy committed to never crossing 2019 pollution levels again.

Not only are flight levels returning to pre-pandemic heights, there are remarkable levels of growth in comparison to 2022 alone. In 2023 domestic flight emissions are 16% higher; European flight emissions 13% higher; and long haul flight emissions are 28% higher. T&E say that the data suggests that aviation emissions could reach an all-time high in 2024.

The analysis shows that budget airlines seem to be driving this return to record emissions. While British Airways remains the highest polluter overall producing 7.52 Mt CO2 in 2023, their emissions are still below 2019 levels. On the other hand Ryanair, easyJet, and emitted 13.5%, 4.8% and 26.3% more than their 2019 emissions respectively. This suggests that budget airlines are the driving force behind emissions bouncing back.

Despite the Government reaffirming its commitment to the polluter pays principle last year, airlines do not have to pay for the vast majority of carbon pollution they are emitting, through either the UK emissions trading scheme (UK ETS), or through fuel duty. This is the exact opposite to the nation’s farmers, car drivers, rail operators and HGV owners, who all have to pay some duty on the fuel they burn.

The UK ETS treats different airlines in different ways, and this means that some airlines are treated unfairly. The average price per tonne of carbon emitted that is paid by airlines varies wildly. Wizz Air paid £34.23 per tonne, whilst Virgin Atlantic, unbelievably, paid nothing. This variation is for the simple reason that the UK ETS only applies to flights departing to somewhere else in the UK, or somewhere in the European Economic Area or Switzerland.

In order to tackle this concerning surge in emissions and a probable return to or exceeding of 2019 levels of aviation emissions, Transport & Environment says that the UK needs to establish a more effective carbon pricing policy by introducing a kerosene tax and extending the carbon market (the UK ETS) to all departing flights.

Matt Finch, UK Policy Manager at Transport & Environment, said:

“UK aviation is addicted to pollution. Some airlines had their most polluting year ever in 2023, and there is a good chance that many more will get that badge of dishonor in 2024. The UK Government is apparently committed to charging polluters to help pay the clean-up costs they cause, but it is willfully ignoring charging airlines, despite their growing climate impact. That’s the directly opposite approach they’re taking to the nation’s drivers, who must pay fuel duty every single time they fill up at the petrol pump.”


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