Several European airlines have been engaged in wide-ranging lobbying to challenge European Union climate policies, including imminent plans to force them to use more green biofuels, a UK-based think tank has found.
InfluenceMap, a think tank that monitors corporate lobbying around climate change, used freedom of information requests and research to draw up its new report. It reveals that while the 10 European airlines looked at for this report have received around €30 billion in government bailouts during the pandemic – some of which came with conditions attached to encourage climate-friendly actions – most have simultaneously lobbied to delay new proposals to cut aviation emissions.
Air France-KLM, IAG (the parent company of British Airways), Lufthansa and Ryanair – Europe’s four biggest airlines by carbon dioxide emissions – were found in the report to be the most regressive with their stance towards climate policies. InfluenceMap rated their position roughly on a par with the airline trade bodies IATA and Airlines for Europe (A4E). The airline Easyjet was seen as taking a slightly more progressive stance.
Ben Youriev, the report’s author, says the unity of opposition across the sector is “startling” compared to most other sectors, such as energy, where there is usually a more mixed picture.
IATA has labelled the report “a gross distortion of the aviation industry’s genuine and long-standing sustainability efforts”.
According to the report, one of the most significant lobbying targets was repeated attempts by IATA and A4E to persuade the European Commission (EC) to address emissions from international aviation from the mid-2020s through a global carbon offsetting scheme, CORSIA, rather than the EU’s own carbon market, the ETS.
The EC has previously concluded that in several respects CORSIA was “less ambitious than the regulation of aviation within the EU ETS”.
Lufthansa responded to the report by stating that “[o]nly strong and competitive companies are in a position to invest in new technologies and further climate protection measures. In Germany, for example, airlines are burdened threefold by the aviation tax, the ETS and CORSIA, while airlines from Turkey, the Gulf states and Asia operate under completely different environmental and social standards.”
The report highlights further lobbying that opposed EU-wide and national-level taxes on jet fuel, and a counter campaign against the flygskam (flight shame) movement. The research also shows the lobbying has yielded results. In early 2020, according to the new report, IATA called on the EC to work within the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to water down CORSIA because of the pandemic. This eventually came to pass in June 2020.
The InfluenceMap report also shows that airlines lobbied against EC plans to announce a mandate next month on their use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), biofuels made from animal waste and cooking oil. The biofuels are seen as a key short-term way to bring down aviation emissions but are currently estimated at only 0.05 per cent of aviation fuel use in the EU, and even less globally.
Emails obtained by InfluenceMap reveal AirFrance told EC officials in March that the mandate should only happen when “the SAF market is mature enough”, warning a mandate risked price spikes due to scarcity of the biofuel. Meanwhile, further emails obtained by InfluenceMap through FOI requests reveal Lufthansa warned the EC in January and February that biofuels obligation could undermine a “level playing field between European and non-European airlines”.
A4E said in a statement that the report fails to reflect the collective actions and investments made by European airlines to address climate change. “We are committed to accelerating our carbon emission reductions to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and have a roadmap that provides robust evidence on how we’re reducing our carbon footprint by 2030 and 2050,” A4E said.
“The aviation industry is mitigating its climate change impact with a global approach based on new technology, sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), better infrastructure, more efficient operations and CORSIA,” IATA said.
Other companies mentioned in the report had not responded to New Scientist‘s request for comment at the time of publication.
The revelations come shortly after US airline United announced on 3 June that it was buying at least 15 supersonic planes from plane manufacturer Boom Supersonic, which it claimed would be the “first large commercial aircraft to be net-zero carbon from day one” through use of SAF.
However, the move was criticised by non-profit organisations and scientists. “We are way behind in developing enough SAF to decarbonise subsonic, and so adding back in supersonic is going to make it even more challenging. It is a very slow process to certify and deploy such fuels,” says Andrew Murphy at Brussels-based non-profit Transport & Environment.
SAF doesn’t reduce CO2 emissions to zero, and supersonic air travel consumes around five times or more fuel than subsonic flight. “Using a typical biofuel [on a supersonic plane] will generally emit at least as much CO2 per passenger as a subsonic plane flying on fossil jet fuel,” says Dan Rutherford at the International Council on Clean Transportation, a US non-profit organisation.
Flying at altitudes twice as high as subsonic planes will also increase supersonic planes’ climate impact via so-called non-CO2 effects that can cause warming, which include increasing the levels of water vapour higher in the atmosphere, as well as levels of particulates and nitrous oxide produced by engines. Keith Shine at the University of Reading, UK, says the worst non-CO2 effect of supersonic flights will be from water vapour, which could stay around for years rather than days as it does at the height subsonic planes fly.
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