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.