How the European Program to Reduce Carbon Pollution from Aviation Works

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Starting January 1, 2012 all aircraft that choose to use European airports have to reduce their carbon pollution that is causing global warming.  It is a very simple program that has unfortunately generated opposition from some airlines and countries.  But it is a common-sense approach which will spur airlines to invest in solutions that will deploy new aircraft technologies that are already being produced, while reducing global warming pollution from this growing source.  Here is how it works.     


Aviation now accounts for more carbon pollution than such countries as the United Kingdom, Canada, South Korea, Mexico, and Australia.**  This amount of pollution would make it the 7th largest emitter of carbon pollution from fossil fuel production if it were a country***.  Aviation emissions are now the second largest sector regulated by the E.U.’s emissions trading program – just behind the electricity sector.

Left uncontrolled, aviation’s carbon pollution is predicted to almost triple by 2036 and quadruple from 2005 levels by 2050, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization (see figure).  

Aviation Emissions Growth.png

As the world confronts global warming, no source of pollution can continue to grow unchecked.  The best science tells us that global warming pollutionfrom all sources throughout the world must be declining no later than 2020 and must be reduced by more than 80 percent by 2050.  So left uncontrolled, aviation’s growing carbon pollution will be exactly the opposite of what we need.    


The European Union (E.U.) program was enacted in E.U. law in 2009 after the E.U. tried in vain to secure a global approach through the International Civil Aviation Organization.  Here is how it works (here is a Q&A from the E.U. which answers some of these in more detail):

All flights that use E.U. airports are required to reduce their carbon pollution.  If an airline chooses to use a European airport it must reduce its carbon pollution from those flights during the course of the year (see here for the list of airlines that are covered for these flights).  The program excludes military flights and airlines that emit minimal levels of pollution.  The E.U. established a firm limit (or cap) on the total amount of carbon dioxide pollution that the flights using E.U. airports can produce during the entire course of the flight.        

These emissions limits are phased in to allow airlines time to take action.  In 2012, this carbon pollution will have to be reduced three percent below the average level of these flights in 2004-2006.  For 2013-2020, these flights will have to reduce their pollution by five percent below 2004-2006 levels.  That is a very manageable reduction schedule for their pollution. 

This program is predicted to reduce carbon pollution by 183 million tones per year by 2020.  That is equivalent to taking 30 million cars off the road each year.  It is also equivalent to about 60 percent of the reductions that are predicted to be achieved by the “historic” vehicle standards that the Obama Administration just adopted.  The reductions from this program will make an important contribution to addressing global warming      

Airlines can comply through a variety of measures.  At the end of the year, each airline will have to turn into the government an amount of emissions allowances (or permits) – with each representing one ton of carbon dioxide – that is equal to its actual pollution for flights using E.U. airports.  For example, flights into and out of Europe operated by the merged United/Continental Airlines produced more than 5.7 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2010, while American Airlines produced 3.3 million tons.  These airlines would have to turn in allowances equivalent to those levels, unless they take action to reduce them. 

The majority of the needed allowances will be given to airlines for free.  Eight-three percent of the emissions allowances (or permits) are given for free, 15 percent will be auctioned, and three percent will be set aside for new entrants and fast growing airlines.  This means that airlines will only have to pay for the 15 percent of allowances and any emissions growth that occurs in their operations.  The vast majority will be given to them free.  If they reduce emissions they will either have to buy less or potentially have extra allowances that can be sold to another airline.  This provides an incentive for each airline to take action.     

As a result airlines have a variety of tools to meet the program requirements.  The airlines can:

  1. Reduce emissions from their flights by buying better aircraft, installing technologies which reduce their fuel use and carbon pollution, operating their flights better (e.g., reducing the weight), or using less polluting fuels (e.g., sustainably certified biofuels).  In many cases these are options that are already readily available.  For example, all the major airplane makers offer much more fuel efficient aircraft (e.g., Boeing, Airbus, and Pratt & Whitney);
  2. Buy allowances from the other sectors with a similar program (e.g., electricity, cement, steel) or other airlines.  Sectors accounting for more than 50 percent of the E.U. carbon pollution are already covered by firm limits.  Airlines can purchase allowances from these sectors to make up any shortfall.  Or airlines can purchase allowances from an airline that has reduced its emissions more than required by law.
  3. Invest in emissions reductions outside the E.U.  The E.U. program allows airlines to purchase “offsets” – non-covered emissions – for a portion of their target under strict quality criteria.


The E.U. program is the first mandatory program in the world to tackle the growing challenge of aviation’s carbon pollution.  It comes after years of failure to develop a global approach.  Countries that choose to take similar action at home will be able to prove that their program is equivalent and therefore have flights to and from that country excluded from the E.U. program.  This makes sense.  If a country acts then there is no need to control the same pollution twice.  But if the country fails to act then it isn’t appropriate to let its pollution go uncontrolled.  Unfortunately some countries and airlines are proposing the later – exclusion with no alternative mandatory program to reduce their pollution.  We can’t afford that approach.

Airlines that are concerned about fuel prices should welcome the incentive to cut their fuel consumption and reduce their pollution.  Time and time again we’ve heard complaints from industry that a new environmental program will destroy their industry.  But the end result is very different from this doom and gloom scenario.  Industry taps into solutions that are already available and innovates even more.  The airline industry should be no different.


* Image: Courtesy of dibaer under the Creative Commons License.

** Aviation data for 2006 from the International Civil Aviation Organization.

*** Carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion data available from World Resources Institute Climate Analysis Indicator Tool.