The Aviation Industry and European Climate Policy
How the aviation industry has lobbied to weaken and delay climate regulation
New research shows the aviation sector has emerged as one of the strongest opponents of climate policy in Europe. While many industrial sectors are in the process of transformation in response to the EU’s strengthened climate agenda, the aviation sector has instead pursued a lobbying strategy to avoid effective regulation. The research further shows that many airlines have initiated extensive, climate-focused PR campaigns to deflect growing concern from governments and the public over the sector’s climate footprint. At the same time, the ten airlines covered by the study have accepted around €30bn in government bailouts since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis.
The research highlights a threat to the EU’s climate targets if the aviation sector’s emissions are allowed to grow at pre-COVID-19 trajectories, with European GHG emissions from aviation more than doubling from 1990-2018. This is significant given the EU Commission will announce its key policies to decarbonize aviation as part of the European Green Deal in July 2021.
The analysis draws from InfluenceMap’s platform which assesses policy engagement against Paris-aligned government and science-based benchmarks, covering over 300 companies and 150 industry associations globally. This research covers the 10 largest European airline companies by GHG emissions, along with the two largest global aircraft manufacturers (Airbus and Boeing). It covers two key industry associations (International Air Transport Association and Airlines for Europe). It involved the collection and analysis of around 800 individual items of evidence on climate policy engagement, with nearly 60% of these dated since 2020. This includes a significant amount of previously unseen information, accessed from over 20 freedom of information requests by InfluenceMap.
Negative climate lobbying efforts appear to be led (with their climate policy engagement scores in brackets on a scale of A to F) by Air France-KLM (E+), International Airlines Group (IAG) (E+), Lufthansa (E+), and Ryanair (E), the four European airlines with the largest disclosed CO2 emissions in 2019. They are joined by two main aviation industry groups, International Air Transport Association. (IATA) (E+) and Airlines for Europe (A4E) (E+). Collectively, these entities have actively opposed key national and EU aviation climate policies including the full inclusion of aviation in the EU Emissions Trading System, kerosene fuel taxes, and ticket taxes on flights.
The research identifies a two-point strategy used by the sector to avoid regulation directly addressing their climate emissions. Firstly, at a European level, the aviation sector has communicated high-level support for net-zero EU aviation emissions by 2050 while opposing specific national and EU-level climate regulations to help deliver that target in their direct engagements with policymakers. Secondly, at a global level through the UN body for aviation, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), industry has lobbied for the CORSIA offsetting scheme to take precedent over policies addressing absolute aviation emissions reductions. At the same time, using the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, industry lobbyists have successfully pushed for the scheme to be watered down further.
Companies have also invested in climate-focused PR and ad campaigns like those employed by Big Oil to link their brands to positive climate action, while simultaneously lobbying against climate regulations. These include rebranding carbon-intensive flights as 'green' or 'low-carbon' and promoting lower-cost offsetting measures over absolute GHG emissions reductions. IATA also coordinates the Fly Aware campaign, which attempts to shift the cost and responsibility of climate action from industry to consumers, and a new FOI reveals is designed to counter the flight shame (flygskam) movement.
It is likely far that more forceful engagement by investors on the aviation sector will be needed, given their apparent strategic opposition to all EU and European regulatory measures to achieve medium-term and long-term climate targets. This may include a focus by investors on the use of shareholder resolutions should progress not be forthcoming, with climate lobbying resolutions already filed in 2021 to United Airlines and Delta Air Lines in the US. The latter is a key trend within investor stewardship of companies on climate, and the aviation sector will likely be in focus here.
InfluenceMap’s detailed new evidence of European aviation companies’ lobbying against EU measures to address the sector’s climate impact is worrying from an investor standpoint.
Such lobbying exposes these companies to both the risk of more drastic regulatory action to curtail the aviation sector’s emissions in the future as well as the risk of reputational damage due to the inconsistency displayed between their stated climate positions and their real-world lobbying actions.
Moreover, such lobbying risks undermining progress against the climate goals of both the EU and the Paris Agreement more broadly. Guided by frameworks such as the Climate Action 100+ Net Zero Company Benchmark and the Climate Action 100+ Aviation Sector Strategy, aviation company lobbying activities will increasingly come to the attention of investors in the sector.
This report shows the hypocrisy of many in the airline industry: despite a clear acknowledgement that the unfolding climate crisis needs action through public support for the climate neutrality target in 2050, many airlines privately lobby against all of the measures needed to achieve this goal. If these companies are against taxing the pollution they produce, against a stronger Emissions Trading Scheme, against targets for sustainable aviation fuels - how else do they propose we reduce emissions? Completely ineffective carbon offsetting schemes that allow them to continue polluting are clearly their preferred option. And they are willing to accept taxpayers’ money without any quid pro quo on sustainability or worker protection.
This report by InfluenceMap comes at an important moment. We need the Commission to be serious about reducing aviation’s emissions and level the playing field between transport modes. I urge the Commission to propose a minimum EU-wide tax on jet fuel, to expand the ETS to international aviation and eliminate free allowances, and to propose regulatory measures on the non-CO2 effects of aviation. Aviation continues to avoid measures that tackle its growing emissions.
The report covers the period before and after Covid-19 and throughout, the industry has opposed environmental measures using a variety of excuses. Even accounting for Covid-19, international aviation emissions are expected to rise by 220-290% by 2050 - this signals catastrophe for our climate. We need urgent action to ensure that aviation contributes its fair share. There is no time to lose.
This well-documented report blows the lid on the efforts of airlines to use the global pandemic as a cover to avoid their environmental responsibilities. It exposes blatant airline practices designed not only to mislead their consumers about their 'green' credentials, but countless occasions when airlines have deliberately tried to mislead policymakers about their initiatives supposedly aimed at the reduction of aviation emissions. The double standards of publicly accepting their 2050 environmental targets while actively undermining them, behind the scenes, helps to explain the lack of progress in the sector's emissions and demonstrates the need for real political will to finally get the sector to contribute at a fair level. It is also imperative to underline the great responsibility of the Member States to make the sector contribute to the EU climate goals.
Investors expect companies to lobby responsibly in support of Paris-aligned legislation and not to seek to delay the policies necessary to encourage a low-carbon economy. The importance of addressing any disconnects between a company’s public rhetoric and its behind-the-scenes policy influence is why we continue to call for greater transparency and accountability on corporate lobbying activities.
This research highlights a significant threat to the EU’s climate targets if the aviation sector's climate impacts continue to grow unchecked. Despite the increasingly positive top-line statements by Europe's airlines about acting on climate change, this report shows that behind the scenes, the same airlines have been trying to delay or undermine real-world policies being put forward to help decarbonize the sector.
This anti-climate lobbying has been taking place at the same time as many airlines receive taxpayer-funded support during the COVID-19 pandemic, with some government's taking an equity stake. This effectively means that some governments are indirectly lobbying against the EU's climate ambitions.
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