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New Commission strategy to improve environmental performance in aviation sector

The European Commission has presented a plan for reducing the impact of air travel on the environment. In a Communication adopted on 27 September 2005, the Commission proposes bringing aircraft operators into the EU’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), creating a permanent incentive for airlines to minimise their emissions.

airplane in flight © Peter Gutierrez
© Peter Gutierrez

Speaking in Brussels, Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: “The boom in flying is bringing with it a rapid rise in greenhouse gas emissions. Extending emissions trading to the aviation sector will limit these emissions and ensure that aviation, like all other sectors, contributes to reducing the harmful greenhouse gases. Through emissions trading, airlines will be able to do so at the least possible cost.”

Vice President and Commissioner for Transport Jacques Barrot said, “There is a growing consensus in the aviation sector that emissions trading represents the best way forward to cut greenhouse gas emissions.”

What is emissions trading?

Emissions trading is a powerful economic tool for combating greenhouse gas emissions. Under the EU ETS, launched in January 2005, Member States grant emissions allowances to polluting industries based on a measure of their need and the Kyoto targets. Companies that cannot meet emissions limits may buy surplus credits from those that do.

The ETS, which currently covers around 11 500 industrial installations, enables participating operators to reduce their CO 2 emissions in the most cost-effective way, creating a permanent incentive for each to minimise emissions while giving operators the flexibility to choose the cheapest way to control their emissions. Bringing civil aviation into the scheme would allow aircraft operators to benefit from this cost-effective approach, enabling them to trade emission allowances in an expanded market with industrial operators and other airlines as necessary.

From an environmental point of view, the Commission believes that the ETS should cover all emissions from any flight departing from the EU, whether to another EU destination or a third country. EU and non-EU carriers would be treated equally.

Aviation and the environment

Air transport plays many key roles in today’s modern societies. It facilitates business and cultural exchanges and is a significant provider of economic growth and employment in many parts of the European Union. But airplanes are also an important and increasing source of greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. For example, a return flight from Amsterdam to the Thai resort of Phuket produces considerably more carbon dioxide than the average new car does in a whole year.

In fact, aviation is the fastest-growing contributor to climate change. Significant improvements in aircraft technology and operational efficiency have not managed to neutralise the impact of increased traffic, and the growth in emissions is likely to continue for decades.

Although total greenhouse gas emissions actually fell in the EU by 3% between 1990 and 2002, those from international aviation increased by almost 70% and, partly fuelled by the boom in budget airlines, are still growing at some 3% per year. This is all taking place against a backdrop of an expected doubling of the world aircraft fleet by 2020.

Next steps

The Commission is inviting the European Parliament and the Council to give detailed responses to the Communication. In parallel, the Commission will set up an expert working group of Member States and stakeholders under the European Climate Change Programme to consider certain issues in more detail and report back next year.

Subsequently the Commission will present a legislative proposal to revise the ETS. This will be fully coordinated with the general review of the ETS due in mid-2006. The timing of aviation’s entry into the ETS will depend on how quickly the legislation is adopted and implemented.