Flying and climate change

Flying is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the most climate-intensive form of transport.

Aviation emissions have more than doubled in the last 20 years and the sector is responsible for an estimated 4.9% of man-made global warming. Within Europe, emissions have grown 26% over the past five years. T&E campaigns with other actors, including members of the International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation (ICSA), for ambitious global and regional targets to reduce emissions within the aviation sector, for full inclusion of aviation in the European Union’s (EU) strategy to meet its reduction targets, and for removing exemptions on fuel taxation and Value Added Tax (VAT) for airlines in the EU.

What's being done about aviation emissions?

Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), emissions from international aviation are treated separately in national accounting. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol requested developed countries to work through the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to limit and reduce emissions from the sector. After years of waiting for ICAO to take action in dealing with the aviation sector’s climate impact, the EU agreed in 2008 that emissions from international aviation would be included in its emissions trading system (EU ETS) from 1 January 2012. Read more about aviation’s trajectory in the EU ETS here.

In October 2016 ICAO agreed on a global market-based measure to address the growth in CO2 emissions from international aviation above 2020 levels. The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA, aims to stabilise CO2 emissions at 2020 levels by requiring airlines to offset the growth of their emissions after 2020. However, it will be voluntary from 2021-2027, potentially only have mandatory effect after 2027, and will, at a maximum, offset only 21.6% of international aviation emissions. The problems with offsetting have been made clear by a recent European Commission study. It found that 73% of offsets from projects registered under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism only partially delivered or failed to deliver the claimed emissions reductions. The aviation sector now runs the risk of repeating these mistakes by resorting to offsetting its emissions – particularly as rules governing the offsets’ environmental integrity in CORSIA are unknown.

What about carbon offsets?

Offsetting itself is incompatible with the Paris agreement, which requires all sectors and all states to reduce their emissions, not just pay others to reduce theirs. The low cost of offsets and weak ambition of CORSIA will provide no incentive for the aviation sector to drive efficiency improvements. And in any case, the measure will not reduce fuel burn or the alarming growth rate of emissions. It is therefore essential that other measures are adopted, especially measures that advance in-sector reductions, such as an efficiency standard for aircraft and ending subsidies.

While ICAO continues to set only minimal climate ambition, it is important that the EU joins other developed regions and countries in showing leadership on this issue. The EU should therefore ensure that reductions in aviation sector emissions make a fair contribution to achieving the EU’s overall 2030 climate target, and it should adopt measures that ensure the sector makes its fair contribution to reducing Europe’s emissions. This includes ending tax exemptions and subsidies and investing in low-carbon alternatives.

Flying is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas