Environmental Groups Defend European Efforts to Reduce Aircraft Emissions

Aviation currently outside international climate agreement to control or limit its growth


Tim Johnson, Director, Aviation Environment Federation. +44 (0) 7710 381742
Debbie Chapman, Senior Press Officer, WWF-UK, +44 (0) 7900 670282
Bill Hemmings, Transport & Environment,+32 (0) 487 582706
Sarah Burt, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6755
Annie Petsonk, International Counsel, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF),
(202) 365 3237

A transatlantic coalition of environmental groups today joined an action at the UK High Court to defend Europe’s right to tackle carbon emissions from foreign aircraft that visit Europe.

The coalition, consisting of three US-based organizations, Earthjustice, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Center for Biological Diversity, as well as WWF-UK, Transport & Environment, and the Aviation Environment Federation in Europe, is intervening in a Judicial Review being sought by several US airlines — United, Continental, and American — and their trade association, the Air Transport Association of America (ATA). The airlines allege that the extension of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) to cover emissions by their aircraft travelling to and from Europe infringes international law and the EU-US open skies agreement.

The environmental groups assert that the ETS has been built on solid legal foundations and, through their intervention in the case, seek to highlight the urgency of tackling emissions from aviation and the failure of the airline industry to date to take appropriate measures.

Today the UK high court decided to refer the case to the European Court of Justice in Luxemburg for a ruling on the validity of the EU law that applies the European emissions trading scheme to the airlines.

The UK high court also granted the coalition permission to intervene, which means it will be able to defend the European law before the European Court of Justice.

Despite the recent global downturn, aviation greenhouse gas emissions have grown significantly over the past decades and are forecast to continue growing. The sector currently accounts for around 5 percent of total global warming, and by 2050 its impact if left unchecked is expected to be 3 to 4 times greater than in 2000. At present, emissions from international aviation remain outside of any international climate agreement to control or limit their growth, whereas emissions from most other industrial sectors in developed countries are covered by the Kyoto Protocol.

Sarah Burt of Earthjustice said, “The US carriers say they want to achieve a global system for controlling emissions from aviation, but rather than building on the European approach, they are trying to destroy what progress has already been made. They are out of step with developments in the US, where lawmakers have seen no reason to give aviation a pass when designing climate legislation.”

Tim Johnson, Director of the Aviation Environment Federation, said, “Global negotiations to limit aviation emissions have made virtually no progress since 1997, so the EU was right to act. By seeking to avoid Europe’s Emissions Trading Scheme with no credible alternative, the airlines are showing that they are not serious about tackling climate change.”

Peter Lockley, Head of Transport Policy at WWF-UK, said, “The airlines have used every trick in the book to try and put a stop to any international efforts to tackle emissions through regulatory measures. Once again, they are attacking European plans, without providing any credible alternative to put a cap on emissions.”

Bill Hemmings, of EU sustainable transport campaigners Transport & Environment, commented, “The industry’s climate strategy of ‘carbon neutral growth’ is a load of hot air. Rather than start to cut emissions now like other sectors, they want to do nothing for yet another decade by which time commercial aviation will be emitting a billion tonnes of CO2 annually. Thereafter their plan is for industry emissions to continue to grow unchecked with only the excess being subject to regulation not through cuts in aviation emissions, but through reductions in other sectors via offsets. That is an untenable and irresponsible position and is totally out of step with other industries.”

Annie Petsonk of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) added: “The draft US Kerry-Lieberman Bill is a sensible approach to regulating international aviation emissions – it recognises that a global deal is the best solution, but doesn’t believe aviation should be let off the hook until that can be achieved. The ATA is attacking climate legislation for aviation on both sides of the atlantic. Clearly, the ATA wants to avoid ever paying the costs of their CO2 emissions, but US lawmakers are not of a mind to grant them special status.”


The EU Emissions Trading Scheme began in 2005 and requires regulated entities to surrender emission permits equal to the CO2 they have generated. From 2012, the scheme will be extended to the aviation sector and cover CO2 emissions from all flights to and from EU airports — and thus including foreign aircraft arriving or departing EU airports. This aviation activity will be capped at an average of 2004-6 emission levels and airlines will receive permits up to this level in 2012 and equivalent to 97 percent of that total from 2013 onwards. Permits will be distributed through a combination of auctioning (15 percent) and a free allocation proportional to their respective share of the market.

(2) Lee et al calculated that the CO2 and non-CO2 radiative forcing (RF) attributable to aviation in 2005 was 4.9 percent of the total RF when best estimates for the effects of aviation induced cirrus cloud formation are included. Without cloud effects, the figure was 3.5 percent. (“Aviation and global climate change in the 21st century”, Atmospheric Environment, April 2009 www.elsevier.com/locate/atmosenv)

  • The action is being brought in the UK because under the terms of the European Emissions Trading Directive, the airlines involved are administered by the UK. However, today’s court hearing was to arrange a referral to the European Court of Justice. All parties agree that the matter should be dealt with at an EU level, as it stems from EU legislation. A hearing in Luxembourg may not take place for several months.

  • The environmental organisations are represented by Jon Turner QC, Kassie Smith, and Laura John of Monckton Chambers, instructed by Harrison Grant.

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