THE SEVEN BIGGEST EUROPEAN AIRLINE GROUPS are failing to take sufficient measures to reduce their CO2 emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, according to a new report commissioned by Greenpeace Central and Eastern Europe.

While European airlines would need to reduce at least two per cent of flights annually by 2040 to be in line with the 1.5°C climate target, none of the companies analysed have annual reduction goals for their greenhouse gas emissions, have committed to reduce flights, or have pledged to fully decarbonise by 2040.

The report concludes that there is little to no substance to the claims made by household names such as Lufthansa, Air France-KLM, IAG (including British Airways and Iberia), Only Ryanair, easyJet, SAS and TAP Air Portugal say that they will cut emissions in the future, as companies mainly rely on ‘solutions’ such as carbon neutrality, carbon offsetting and so-called sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) to tackle emissions.It says only three of the biggest European airline groups have made a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emission within the next five years.

Herwig Schuster, spokesperson for Greenpeace’s European Mobility For All campaign, said: “European airlines are putting up a smokescreen of false solutions that sound great, but in effect keep transport hooked on oil, distracting from their staggering emissions, lack of credible climate targets and insufficient measures to combat the impacts of flying. Even in the face of a climate emergency, airlines carry on polluting the air and hide their dirty business behind a wall of greenwashing. 

“The European Union and its leaders cannot continue to let the aviation industry get away with their false climate solutions and must bring down emissions, starting with a ban on short-haul flights and a reduction of business flights wherever reasonable train alternatives exist.”

In 2019, the seven biggest European airlines alone were responsible for 170 million tonnes of GHG emissions, equivalent to more than the total annual emissions of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland combined.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel is an umbrella term for relatively new types of jet fuel that are mostly based on biomass and are intended to replace kerosene. While six of the seven companies analysed either rely on so-called Sustainable Aviation Fuel or plan to use it to tackle emissions, none has explicitly excluded the use of agrofuels, which are linked to environmental destruction,. Greenpeace says European airlines overemphasise the use of SAF as a way to appear green, when in fact this accounted for as little as 0.1 per cent or less of the total annual jet fuel consumption of any airline analysed in 2019. Only one airline explicitly says it invests in the development of e-fuels based on renewables.The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects that SAF will make up 19 per cent of airline fuels by 2040, leaving 81 per cent fossil-fuel based kerosene.

Greenhouse gas emissions from global aviation have grown by 3.4 per cent annually between 2010 and 2019 according to the recent IPCC report, when they should be dropping rapidly. Without political action to counter its growth prospects, the aviation industry could become one of the biggest emitting sectors globally, and by 2050 will have consumed up to a quarter of the global carbon budget for achieving the 1.5°C climate goal.

Greenpeace, together with more than 30 other organisations, is campaigning to legally end fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship in the EU, much like the long-established directive banning tobacco sponsorships and advertisements. If the campaign collects one million verified signatures in a year, the European Commission is obliged to respond to the proposal.

Carbon neutrality (or net-zero) is a concept criticised by climate scientists as a “dangerous trap” based on the idea that a polluter can continue to emit CO2 and balance the emissions out by paying someone else in the hope they will save emissions in the future, instead of directly reducing current emissions. Six of the seven airline groups analysed pledge to become “carbon neutral” by 2050.

Carbon offsetting means that a polluter that has emitted greenhouse gases exchanges or ‘offsets’ their pollution with a ‘credit’ for carbon captured by someone else. Greenpeace says this is a licence to keep polluting in exchange for carbon credits,for example, tree planting or nature conservation projects that promise to save emissions in the future. However, research has shown that many of these projects do not actually lead to any such savings.

E-fuel is a new type of jet fuel based on renewable energy(e-kerosene and potentially green hydrogen) that could allow airlines to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the long term for those drastically reduced and remaining flights that cannot be avoided or shifted to rail. However, with global production of e-fuel making up only about 0.00004 per cent of the total jet fuel needed in the EU in a year, e-fuel is a long way from being available at the scale required.

* Read: Analysis of the environmental, social and governance information and performance of European airlines (from 2018 to 2020) With special consideration for the use of European bailout and stimulus funds during the COVID-19 crisis here.

* More information on the campaign to ban fossil fuel advertising here.

* Source: Greenpeace International