Airline emissions in Europe soared upwards in 2019

Published by Kayle Crosson on

April 3rd, 2020

Fourteen of the 20 biggest polluting airlines saw their emissions rise in 2019, according to official EU figures released this week. 

The 14 carriers released an extra 1.6 million tonnes of CO2 last year alone and the collective emissions figure for the aviation sector is expected to be released by the European Commission later this month.  Ryanair was among the listed airlines.

While airlines’ annual emissions are expected to see a drop in 2020 due to Covid-19 mandated groundings, Transport & Environment (T&E) doubts that they won’t bounce back after the pandemic has passed. 

The Brussels-based environmental organisations said that passenger numbers have “repeatedly broken records in the aftermath of global shocks” like the 2008 financial crisis, 9/11, the Gulf War and the SARS outbreak. 

T&E aviation manager Andrew Murphy stressed that airlines had been seeing their emissions climb prior to the coronavirus outbreak, and said that “this current bust will be followed by another boom in CO2” if aviation continues to go “untaxed and unregulated”. 

“Governments must break that cycle by sticking with the European Green Deal commitment to rein in emissions growth,” Mr Murphy added. 

Aviation and climate change 

While historically untaxed in the regional bloc, political momentum is building to tax aviation within the European Union and revoke the free pollution permits they receive as part of the emissions trading system. 

Just last week, the European Commission said it was exploring the option of requiring airlines to start using cleaner fuels, such as synthetic e-fuels. 

The move would be significant. Greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation have more than doubled in the past thirty years and international aviation makes up 13.3 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU. 

If the industry grows unchecked, emissions from the aviation sector are predicted to rise annually between one and four per cent in the coming decades. 

If trends continue globally, the industry may make up just under a quarter of total CO2 emissions by 2050. 

As well as releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, aviation emits nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. The former, when released at high altitudes, enhances the ozone layer further warming the planet and the latter has a negative impact on air quality. 

Research suggests that aviation may cause 16,000 premature deaths per year due to particulate matter, with almost half attributable to emissions from aircraft landing and take-off.   

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Kayle Crosson

Kayle is a multimedia journalist focused on climate and environmental issues and contributes to The Irish Times and The Green News.