It was student climate strikers who pushed the crisis to the top of the agenda in 2019, and with that came greater scrutiny of aviation. Flygskam, meaning ‘flight shame’, began to influence people’s travel plans. It’s hard to assess how many joined the iconic Greta Thunberg in avoiding flying - the most carbon intensive form of transport - but Sweden saw a 4% drop in the number of people flying via its airports last year. People turned to rail: Eurostar recorded record passenger numbers on its trains between the UK and continental Europe last summer. And European rail operators started to revive night trains which had hastily been withdrawn from service over the last decade.
Airlines themselves also came in for greater criticism over their 3.7% (and rapidly growing) share of EU emissions. T&E was scrutiniser-in-chief, quickly analysing the latest official data to show that Ryanair had joined the top 10 carbon emitters within Europe, a league which had until now been exclusively occupied by coal plants. The airline's CO2 emissions had increased by nearly half in the five years to 2018, while overall airline emissions had shot up almost 5% in just one year.
The European elections of May 2019 were a crystallising moment in the fight to rein in aviation’s emissions in Europe. In TV debates the lead candidates of the four big political groups all called for airlines to finally start paying tax on their flights within the EU. “The privileging of the airline business must be stopped,” the center-right’s Manfred Weber said. “Why is there still no tax on kerosene?” asked the socialist, Frans Timmermans. “That’s crazy.” Fast forward a few months and Timmermans is the new Commission’s climate chief and promising to review airlines’ kerosene tax exemption.
But the fight to get aviation taxation on the agenda had begun much earlier. To combat the widespread misconception that such taxation would be illegal, T&E commissioned legal experts to explain that it could in fact be done. A tax could be agreed at EU level or between individual countries, the independent legal analysis said.
Then came a long-awaited study for the European Commission that found taxing aviation kerosene sold in Europe would cut aviation emissions by 11%. The reduction in carbon emission would be equivalent to removing almost 8 million cars from our roads. T&E championed the study, which had been finalised the previous year but had its publication delayed by the Commission. And contrary to the aviation industry’s claims, the leaked study noted that the Chicago Convention “does not explicitly prohibit the taxation of jet fuel” - confirming T&E’s earlier legal analysis.
Coalition of the willing
The legal clarifications sparked a coalition of the willing. In June the Netherlands government assembled EU finance ministers and officials for a special conference on how to tax aviation and address its climate impact. At T&E’s urging, the Swedish and Dutch ministers called for bilateral or multilateral agreements between EU countries to be a way forward to tax aviation fuel.
Back in Brussels, finance ministers from nine European countries called on the EU to work harder to put a price on aviation’s carbon pollution. In a statement, the group, which included Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands, asked the incoming European Commission to help end the undertaxation of aviation.
"Andrew Murphy of Transport & Environment, said: 'Aviation is the most carbon intensive mode of transport so it’s no surprise that it risks an increasing cost from climate measures. But that cost can be mitigated if the sector steps up investment in new aircraft and fuels.' ”
In December, the Commission’s EU Green Deal set the agenda for climate measures in aviation. Such ‘difficult to decarbonise’ sectors would be required by law to start using cleaner fuels - like the synthetic ‘e-fuel’ which T&E had been first to put on the agenda. Aviation’s free pollution permits in the bloc’s emissions trading system would be reduced. And the Commission would look closely at how to end the kerosene tax exemption. A 12-month T&E effort had borne fruit, and we were ready for the fight ahead: getting a new tax made law.
On top of the tax exemption enjoyed by all airlines, Ryanair was also benefiting from taxpayers’ money propping up almost a quarter of the EU airports it operated from, an in-depth T&E study revealed. Some 52 of the low-cost carrier’s 214 airports were either documented to be receiving subsidies or had fewer than 500,000 passengers a year – a conservative estimate of the threshold for profitability. T&E called on the European Commission to end state aid for loss-making airports, which is used to subsidise airlines’ rapidly growing emissions.
But while Europe is considering aviation taxation, it’s coming under sustained pressure to relax the one measure it has in place to tackle emissions. The UN aviation agency ICAO has long wanted Europe to remove flights from its emissions trading system - and has succeeded in having flights to and from destinations outside Europe exempted. But ending the measure and replacing it with ICAO’s offsets scheme would see airline emissions in Europe soar by 683 million tonnes of CO2 over 10 years. That was the findings of independent research for T&E, which said that relying on the phony offsetting scheme, known as Corsia, would do absolutely nothing to reduce the sector’s spiralling climate impact.
We also highlighted the very worrying scientific findings that flying’s true warming impact is two to four times that of its CO2 emissions when non-CO2 emissions are taken into account. We shone a light on the slow and very secretive work the Commission was undertaking to address the non-CO2 emissions - to ensure the problem couldn’t be swept under the carpet.