European Low-Cost Airlines Surge in Pollution Levels Amidst Market Share Growth, Reveals 2023 Study

A comprehensive study conducted by the environmental advocacy group Transport & Environment (T&E) has revealed the significant increase in pollution levels attributed to low-cost airlines, with Ryanair leading as Europe’s top polluter for the third consecutive year. The study, focusing on aviation emissions in 2023, indicates a disturbing trend of escalating carbon emissions within the sector, particularly among budget airlines such as Ryanair and Wizz Air, which have surpassed their pre-pandemic pollution peaks.

According to the report, Ryanair’s carbon emissions soared to 15 million tonnes (Mt) in 2023, marking a 23% increase from pre-COVID levels. Wizz Air’s emissions witnessed a more drastic surge, growing by 40% during the same period. This escalation in emissions has been starkly contrasted with legacy carriers like Lufthansa and British Airways, which have yet to return to their pre-pandemic operational levels, thereby emitting less than their historical averages.

The analysis further unveils that in 2023, one in every four flights in Europe was operated by one of the three main low-cost carriers (easyJet, Ryanair, Wizz Air), up from one in five in 2019. Budget airlines’ market share growth comes at the expense of traditional carriers, which have seen a 2.8 percentage point drop in market share since the onset of the COVID pandemic.

Jo Dardenne, Aviation Director at T&E, criticised the unsustainable growth driven by the low-cost business model. “The exorbitant increase in pollution by budget airlines is a stark indication that the vision of ‘green’ aviation is far from being realized,” Dardenne expressed, highlighting the inadequacy of clean technologies, such as sustainable aviation fuels, to keep pace with the sector’s growth.

Despite the dominance of low-cost airlines in short-haul routes, the study notes that legacy carriers, along with selected third-country carriers, still account for a major portion (42.2%) of European aviation emissions due to their long-haul operations. It is reported that 20 airlines, comprising European legacy and major third-country carriers, are responsible for a more significant share of emissions than over 400 airlines operating from Europe

more significant share of emissions than over 400 airlines operating from Europe.
The study also criticises the current carbon pricing mechanisms, revealing that a substantial portion (78%) of aviation CO2 emissions were not effectively priced in 2023, owing to exemptions and free allowances within European carbon markets. This has resulted in airlines, both legacy and budget, paying a fraction of the costs for their emissions. Dardenne called for reevaluating the carbon market and taxation policies to ensure more equitable and impactful pricing of aviation emissions.

Highlighting the inefficiencies in current carbon pricing, the report points out the London-Dublin route as Europe’s most frequented, with approximately 44 daily flights. Meanwhile, routes with viable train alternatives, such as London-Amsterdam, continue to witness high flight volumes, underscoring the urgent need for policy interventions to manage demand and reduce aviation’s carbon footprint.

In response, T&E advocates for revising EU law in 2026 to extend the Emissions Trading System (ETS) to include all flights departing from European airports, regardless of destination. This measure, alongside revising the kerosene tax and demand reduction strategies at European airports, is, according to the NGO, a crucial step towards achieving sustainable aviation in the post-pandemic era.