EU airline emissions restrictions attract opposition from the United States

Last August, the European Union (EU) voted to impose a law restricting carbon dioxide emissions from commercial airlines flying within, to and from Europe. The law went into effect on January 1 of this year and now, the United States government is trying to counteract the restrictions, saying that the new laws are too costly for American air carriers to keep up with. The new EU law requires all air carriers on flights into and out of Europe to pay to offset their carbon emissions caused from transcontinental flights, adopting a carbon credit system that allows airlines to trade emissions produced for carbon credits to fund environmental action projects.

The law, titled the EU Emissions Trading Scheme Directive (ETS), was adopted in 2008 and establishes a cap on carbon emissions on European flights. Airlines whose flights exceed this cap are now required to buy more carbon credits – a market-based approach that the airline industry says it is not financially prepared to undertake, as the industry as a whole has declined in profits since the global economic recession began in 2008.

U.S. airlines, including the Air Transport Association of America and American Airlines, filed a lawsuit claiming that the regulations violate the Open Skies Agreement, decided in 2007 by the United States and the European Union. This agreement allows air carriers from both regions to operate flights between Europe and the U.S. and to set reasonable prices on transcontinental flights. The plaintiffs also argued that the laws are inconsistent with the Chicago Convention, an agreement decided in 1944 that grants countries sovereignty over their domestic airspace.

According to NASA, the global airline industry produces around 4 percent of the world’s carbon emissions total each year. Some experts say that carbon emissions produced at a higher altitude may have a higher negative impact on the atmosphere than emissions produced at sea level.

Some airlines have begun experimenting with alternative jet fuels, but others have not taken these steps toward environmentally friendly air travel. Some airlines also offer carbon offsetting programs, in which passengers can pay an additional fee to fund environmental projects to mitigate carbon emissions.

The global aviation industry has attempted to restrict emissions from flights since 1997, without much success. The EU law is the first major step toward setting consequences for carbon emissions, and under the new law, airlines will have to comply or face restrictions or a ban from flying to Europe. The EU’s environmental actions, including its strong participation at the COP17 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa this past December, have proved that it has firm intentions to instate policies against climate change – so it is unlikely that the EU will retract the ETS and allow other bodies, such as the U.S., an exemption.

Since the required payment for carbon credits would translate to an increase in airfare, the EU aims to hold all airlines to the same standard. Allowing some airlines to not participate in the carbon credit scheme would enable those airlines to offer lower ticket prices, creating an unfair market. In the meantime, while the U.S. attempts to negotiate with the EU, flights to Europe could be reduced or suspended. The new regulations have gathered international opposition from countries besides the U.S. as well.

The U.S. government is trying to fight the EU restrictions, arguing that the carbon offset fees are unfair and too expensive. However, these regulations are necessary in order for the airline industry to take responsibility for their emissions and eventually switch to cleaner fuels. Sign this petition on to show your support for greener skies.

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KLM To Begin Using Biofuel On Commercial Flights

Dutch airline KLM is the latest carrier to announce that they plan to use biofuel to fly to France starting in September of this year. On more than 200 flights between Paris and Amsterdam, KLM will use biofuel made from recycled cooking oil in an effort to reduce carbon emissions. This move is especially economical because the airline will not need to make any changes to its existing aircrafts or engines to accommodate the cooking oil fuel, KLM said last week. The use of biofuel, a response to stricter pollution thresholds set by the European Union, is a way for KLM to “minimum negative impact on biodiversity and food supply”, said managing director Camiel Eulings.

These flights will contain a mixture of jet fuel and biofuel in Boeing 737 engines, which is produced by US-based Dynamic Fuels. KLM states that it is committed to sustainability, and has taken other steps to make its operations more environmentally friendly. New, more efficient aircrafts were added to the fleet in 2009, and the company is developing a new aircraft, aimed for launch in 2025, that will be 50% more efficient. KLM has reduced its CO2 emissions both on the air and on the ground by reducing kerosene use by 9.5% in 5 years. The airline also strives to match flight demand with its aircrafts, flying larger and fuller aircrafts in peak season and reserving its small airplanes for the off-season.

KLM, which merged with Air France in 2003, previously tested biofuel on an Air France-KLM demonstration flight in 2009, which carried 40 people for 90 minutes, including the Dutch minister of economic affairs. Reportedly the first flight to use biofuel, one of its four engines contained equal parts biofuel and regular jet fuel.

Air travel is estimated to contribute about 2 to 3 percent of global carbon emissions, and 3 percent of European emissions. The European Union has placed new, tighter caps on pollution, and has told airlines that, by 2012, they must reduce their carbon emissions on flights within the European continent by 3 percent in order to adapt to the new pollution limits. Airlines are encouraged to experiment with cleaner, more eco-friendly fuel use as well as strategize to obtain maximum efficiency on existing flights. Full flights on large aircrafts with a high seat density are more fuel efficient, according to a recent study by Brighter Planet. To begin maximizing efficiency, airlines can fill flights to capacity rather than transport a half-full load of passengers.

As a whole, the air travel industry burns 75 billion gallons of jet fuel every year. The rising cost of oil and government subsidies for eco-friendly fuel have driven many airlines to test biofuel, which is cheaper to purchase and environmentally safer to produce than oil. Though the debate continues as to whether biofuels truly burn cleaner than fossil fuels, the low cost and low environmental impact of biofuel have caught the attention of airlines worldwide.

KLM joins several other airlines who have already committed to using greener fuels, including Southwest Airlines. Last week, the American carrier announced plans to join with 10 other airlines and partner with Solena Fuels to use 16 million gallons of 100% biofuel by the year 2015, which will be partly sourced from 550,000 metric tons of trash. United-Continental Airlines, American Airlines, JetBlue, US Airways, and Lufthansa are among the 10 airlines included in the partnership. European airlines, including KLM, British Airways and Lufthansa, agreed to a similar deal this week with biofuel producers to make 2 million tons of cleaner fuel by 2020. Other international carriers to use or test biofuel include the United States Navy, Air Japan, Air New Zealand, and Virgin Airways. 

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The Greenest Airlines: Who’s The Most Fuel-Efficient, And Why?

A new study by Brighter Planet has analyzed data from sources such as the United States Bureau of Transportation Services, the US Federal Aviation Administration, and the European Environmental Agency to reveal which major airlines are operating the most fuel-efficient and environmentally-friendly flights. The study found that fuel efficiency varies greatly among airlines and aircrafts, a conclusion drawn by analyzing five influential factors.

The study reviewed a decade’s worth of data, 130 million flight departures and 9.7 billion passenger boardings from the world’s 20 largest airlines by passenger volume, considering fuel efficiency, passenger load, seat density, freight share, and distance.


European budget carrier Ryanair came out on top, while American Airlines’ offshoot airline, American Eagle, ranked last. Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific came in second, with European no-frills airline easyJet  close behind. Continental and United, which are scheduled to merge later this year, were ranked third and fourth and were the top American carriers. Domestic travel was found to be less efficient than international travel, but these results are skewed by the fact that domestic flights are often short and operated by regional carriers with small aircrafts, two characteristics that negatively affect efficiency. 

In the study, Brighter Planet divided the total amount of fuel consumed by the number of passengers on each flight to calculate the cost of fuel per passenger, which determines the overall efficiency. These calculations rely on all five efficiency drivers, which come together to form a complete and detailed picture of carbon emissions in the airline industry.

Fuel efficiency is tied to the aircraft model, as larger airplanes require more fuel than smaller models. Larger aircrafts burn more fuel, presumably making them less efficient. However, passenger load significantly affects fuel efficiency, as a large plane with a full passenger load will be more fuel-efficient than a small plane with few passengers, as the cost of fuel per person rises if there are less people on the flight.

Seating density is also tied to each particular aircraft, as airplanes with more seats use less fuel per passenger and are thus more efficient. Although all aircrafts of a certain model – e.g., a Boeing 747-800 – are manufactured to be the same size, airlines can choose how many seats to fit on each plane, altering the seat density of each vehicle. An aircraft on top-ranking Ryanair and easyJet often will accommodate more passengers with a higher seat density than the same model on another airline that chooses to outfit its aircraft with a low seating density, such as British Airways, making Ryanair and easyJet more efficient. Seat density declines in aircrafts with a large first class section, as first class allows more leg room and less seats.

Freight share refers to the extra freight – besides airline equipment, passengers and luggage – that airplanes carry. Seventy-eight percent of commercial flights load mail and other cargo onto the plane, increasing efficiency by carrying cargo that would otherwise consume more fuel if flown separately. Most flights, though, only carry up to 5% of freight share, making this factor arguably the least significant.

Distance has the greatest effect on how efficient a flight is, as it impacts how economically the fuel is used. With the exception of the longest overseas flights, short flights are less efficient than long flights, because takeoff and landing require more fuel than cruising at altitude. Two short flights consume more fuel than one long flight, as the takeoff and landing is doubled – e.g., a nonstop flight from Los Angeles to New York City will consume less fuel than the same flight with a layover in Dallas, as it is necessary to land the plane in Dallas and take off again, two fuel-guzzling moves.

Airline fuel efficiency has increased by 20 percent over the last decade, largely due to airline competition and the rising cost of fuel on a global scale. There is no evidence to show that ticket price is related to efficiency, a good sign indicating that more efficient flights aren’t charged a premium. Air travel is estimated to contribute about 2 percent of global carbon emissions, and 3 percent of both European and American carbon emissions. The industry consumes 75 billion gallons of fuel every year, releasing 3 trillion pounds of CO2e into the air.

Brighter Planet CEO Patti Prairie stresses that air travel can be an efficient means of transportation, and says that the findings demonstrate that “businesses and individuals don’t necessarily have to cut out air travel or spend more time and money to be more environmentally sensitive, they just need better carbon intelligence.” Passengers can decrease their carbon footprint while traveling by choosing full flights or peak dates, large aircrafts, and nonstop flights, and by flying economy class.

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