The airline industry worldwide is seeing strong growth at the moment, including within Europe. By far one of the most successful airlines is our very own Ryanair, who saw a staggering 130 million passengers fly with them in 2018. With their profits flying high and growth expected to continue, it seems that the company is on a solid trajectory. However, behind all the glam hides a dirty, less discussed side of the industry, one which makes me think it may be in need of serious reform.

A recent EU study found Ryanair to be one of the top ten emitters of Co2 in Europe, a title usually held by large coal plants. In 2018, the company declared 9.9 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, an increase of 7% over the previous year. More worrying is the fact that this figure is 50% higher than it was five years ago. Clearly, the issue is getting worse as the airline grows in volume, but this is far from the main reason behind the rise in pollution by the company. In fact, the airline industry as a whole is Europe’s fastest-growing source of harmful emissions, growing 4.9% last year, which is a clear sign that the industry is in need of reform.

Despite the evidence that their emissions of the harmful pollutant are rising, Ryanair claims to be Europe’s greenest airline, with their passengers having the smallest Co2 footprint of all European airlines. Though they do indeed have a young, less polluting fleet of planes than most, the company cannot deny their harmful impact on the environment. Ryanair are certainly not alone in harming the environment; EasyJet saw a 10% increase in their Co2 emissions from 2017 to 2018. However, being the leading airline in Europe, Ryanair tends to be the centre of attention when discussing the industry.

So, why is the aviation sector responsible for such pollution? The lack of regulation on emissions within the industry is often cited as being the primary reason. For instance, the kerosene used by planes, which is where most of their pollution comes from, is not taxed. When you compare this to the petrol used in cars being taxed at roughly €0.50 per litre, it seems slightly unfair. Moreover, there are only very minor polluting standards in the aviation industry, as opposed to the coal or oil industries that are heavily regulated. Add all of this to a seemingly placid government attitude to the issue, and you have a very concerning topic at hand. A report on climate change from the Oireachtas published last week mentioned airlines a mere three times in it, and even then only as a potential solution to decreasing Co2 emissions, not a crucial one.

What could be done to mitigate the impact of these airlines on our climate? If we are to meet the goals set by the Paris Agreement for 2020, we need to focus on completely decarbonising all aspects of the economy, and because the airline industry is the fastest growing source of Co2, a huge emphasis should be placed on it. The French and Dutch governments have, quite rightly, begun discussing the feasibility of introducing a kerosene tax. However, with the prices of oil soaring due to a reduction in OPEC supply, this may not come into effect to avoid putting airlines out of business entirely. Taxes aren’t the only available option though, as the Swedish and Norwegian governments are demonstrating. They have begun enforcing a directive whereby planes who refuel there will be required to have a minimum of 1% renewable or sustainable fuel by 2021, increasing to 30% by 2030. Not only is this a way of reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions, but it could also lead to lower costs for airlines as renewable fuel becomes more mainstream and cheaper.

This is all well and good, but what would the effects be on the consumer? Presently, it is estimated to add a mere €1.70 per passenger, which will hardly deter passengers from flying considering ticket prices have dropped 15% in the last couple of years. As aviation technology improves and sustainable fuels improve, this cost will presumably decrease to an even more negligible figure. For next to no effort or reduction in profits, Ryanair and other airlines could take the initiative of becoming greener before it is enforced on them by law, perhaps even benefiting from the publicity that this would entail. At present though, that seems unlikely. Reform in the airline industry might have to wait until governments put more pressure on companies to behave more responsibly.


By Alex Lohier – Business Editor