UK Aviation’s Carbon Emissions Soar Towards Pre-Pandemic Levels: NGOs Call for Regulatory Reform

In a detailed examination of the UK aviation sector’s environmental impact, a recent study by Transport & Environment (T&E) reveals a concerning trajectory towards pre-pandemic levels of carbon emissions. The analysis uncovers a resurgence in aviation activity, with nearly 940,000 flights departing from UK airports in 2023, culminating in 32 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2 emissions—a 23% increase from the previous year. This resurgence signals a potential reversal of the environmental gains seen during the global pandemic, with emissions in 2023 reaching 89% of those recorded in 2019, the year the UK government pledged to cap aviation pollution levels through its Jet Zero Strategy.

The report highlights a significant growth in emissions across all flight categories compared to 2022, with domestic flights up by 16%, European flights by 13%, and long-haul flights by an alarming 28%. This increase suggests that the aviation sector’s emissions could surpass all previous records by 2024. Budget airlines, particularly, are identified as key contributors to this rebound, with Ryanair, easyJet, and exceeding their 2019 emission levels by 13.5%, 4.8%, and 26.3%, respectively, despite British Airways remaining the largest overall polluter at 7.52 Mt CO2 in 2023.

The study also criticises the current regulatory framework for its ineffectiveness in curbing aviation emissions. Notably, the UK’s emissions trading scheme (UK ETS) and the absence of a kerosene tax are highlighted as areas where the aviation industry benefits from regulatory leniency, unlike other sectors, such as agriculture and transportation, where fuel usage is taxed. The report points out disparities within the UK ETS, where the cost per tonne of carbon varies significantly among airlines, with Wizz Air paying £34.23 per tonne. In contrast, Virgin Atlantic paid nothing due to the scheme’s limited applicability to flights within the UK, the European Economic Area, or Switzerland.

Matt Finch, UK Policy Manager at Transport & Environment, asserts, “UK aviation is addicted to pollution. Some airlines had their most polluting year ever in 2023, and there is a good chance that many more will get that badge of dishonor in 2024.” He emphasises the government’s inconsistent application of the polluter pays principle, particularly its failure to impose similar charges on airlines as it does on the nation’s drivers, who pay fuel duty.

To address this surge in emissions and the potential surpassing of 2019 levels, T&E advocates for the establishment of a more effective carbon pricing strategy, including the introduction of a kerosene tax and the expansion of the UK ETS to encompass all departing flights. This call to action underscores the urgent need for policy reforms to ensure the aviation industry contributes fairly to the environmental costs it incurs, aligning with broader efforts to mitigate climate change.