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Reducing emissions from aviation

Aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. The European Union is taking action to reduce aviation emissions in Europe and working with the international community to develop measures with global reach.


Aviation included in EU ETS

Plane taking off in front of the morning sun

Since the start of 2012 emissions from all flights from, to and within the European Economic Area (EEA) -  the 28 EU Member States, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway - are included in the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS).

The legislation, adopted in 2008, applies to EU and non-EU airlines alike.

Flights within EEA covered for 2013-2016

To allow time for negotiations on a global market-based measure applying to aviation emissions, the EU ETS requirements were suspended for flights in 2012 to and from non-European countries.

For the period 2013-2016  the legislation has also been amended so that only emissions from flights within the EEA fall under the EU ETS. Exemptions for operators with low emissions have also been introduced.

For details see the Documentation and FAQ tabs above (which also include information on the European Commission’s initial proposal for emissions coverage within the European regional airspace).

The EU made this change following agreement by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Assembly in October 2013 to develop a global market-based mechanism addressing international aviation emissions by 2016 and apply it by 2020. This agreement followed years of pressure from the EU for global action.

The amended law provides for the Commission to report to the European Parliament and Council on the outcome of the 2016 ICAO Assembly and propose measures as appropriate to take international developments into account with effect from 2017.

Market-based measures are most cost-efficient approach 

Like industrial installations covered by the EU ETS, airlines receive tradeable allowances covering a certain level of CO2 emissions from their flights per year.

The Commission proposed the inclusion of aviation in the EU ETS after concluding that this was the most cost-efficient and environmentally effective option for controlling aviation emissions. Its decision was based on the results of a wide-ranging consultation of stakeholders and the public and analysis of several types of market-based solutions.

Compared with alternatives such as a fuel tax, including aviation in the EU ETS provides the same environmental benefit at a lower cost to society - or a higher environmental benefit for the same cost.

In addition to market-based measures, operational measures - such as modernising and improving air traffic management technologies, procedures and systems – also contribute to reducing aviation emissions.

Compatible with international law

The EU's 2008 legislation on aviation emissions is compatible with international law. This was confirmed by the European Court of Justice on 21 December 2011 in a legal case brought by some US airlines and their trade association against the inclusion of aviation in the EU ETS.

The Court stated that:

  • the extension of the EU ETS to aviation infringes neither the principle of territoriality, nor the sovereignty of third countries;
  • the EU ETS does not constitute a tax, fee or charge on fuel, which could be in breach of the EU-US Air Transport Agreement;
  • the uniform application of the EU ETS to European and non-European airlines alike is consistent with provisions in the EU-US Air Transport Agreement prohibiting discriminatory treatment between aircraft operators on nationality grounds.

Aviation emissions growing fast

Someone flying from London to New York and back generates roughly the same level of emissions as the average person in the EU does by heating their home for a whole year.

Direct emissions from aviation account for about 3% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The large majority of these emissions comes from international flights.

By 2020, global international aviation emissions are projected to be around 70% higher than in 2005 even if fuel efficiency improves by 2% per year. ICAO forecasts that by 2050 they could grow by a further 300-700%.