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Sky with Parachutes

CLEAR SKIES AHEAD: HOW TO DECARBONISE EUROPEAN AVIATION?

Milica Mijailović

Introduction 

Commercial aviation has fueled European integration, mobility, and interconnectedness for decades, particularly since the establishment of the single aviation market in the 1990s (Modarress Fathi et al., 2023; European Commission [EC], n.d.-a). Despite its importance for European and global economic prosperity, rapid aviation growth took an unprecedented toll on the environment. While climate concerns appear to be at the forefront of policy negotiations across most industries, particularly in Europe, aviation pollution remains overlooked. 

As one of the highest energy-intensive consumer behaviours (Gössling & Humpe, 2020), air travel is the second largest transport polluter in the EU (EC, n.d.-b). Since the 1990s, CO2 emissions from commercial aviation have increased almost twofold yearly (Overton, 2022). By 2050, aviation could account for one-fifth of global emissions (EEA, 2017). Despite this, there is a significant lack of global measures to address this (Transport & Environment [T&E], n.d.-a). The EU remains no exception, as most of its carbon policies fail to address the impact of kerosene on the environment, highlighting a significant gap in regulation. While the Union has taken the necessary first step towards decarbonising aviation by adopting ReFuelEU, its largest-to-date sustainable fuel mandate for aviation (Laude, 2023), the question remains if such initiatives are sufficient for achieving the EU carbon neutrality target by 2050.

For decades, aviation has enjoyed a privileged position in both EU and global policymaking. Through kerosene tax breaks, generous subsidies, and the absence of rigid CO2 efficiency standards, this sector still remains underregulated, over-subsidised, and undertaxed (T&E, n.d.-b). While some industries grapple with meeting environmental regulations due to financial constraints, airlines continue to receive tens of billions of euros in subsidies each year. Further, flight tickets continue to be exempted from VAT, and airlines pay zero duty on kerosene, a privilege exclusive to aviation within the transport sector (T&E, n.d.-b). Though these tax breaks were introduced in 1944 to stimulate the postwar economy (Schultz, 2019), the exemption still holds 80 years later. 

In light of rising public concern over the environmental ramifications of aviation (Cohen & Higham, 2011), one might argue that persuading individuals to give up on their desire to travel could represent a simpler, more direct measure. However, altering flying habits has proven to be one of the most difficult behaviours to address (Higham et al., 2014), particularly as pro-environmental beliefs do not always translate to behavioural outcomes. 

Regardless of the chosen approach, the expected growth in fuel demand and aviation emissions cannot be mitigated through technology improvements alone (T&E, 2018). This indicates that the EU needs to take a firmer stance in addressing the lack of decarbonisation in this sector. Given the pressing need to find a solution that effectively mitigates the environmental impact of European aviation while balancing social and economic concerns, the question that this paper aims to answer is: What measures should the European Union adopt to effectively facilitate the decarbonisation of the aviation sector?

Legislative framework and policy overview

Competencies in the European Union

Prior to assessing the EU legal framework concerning aviation, it is paramount to outline the extent of the EU’s legislative and implementation authority. According to the Treaty of Lisbon, the three types of competencies in the EU are exclusive (the EU alone can legislate and adopt legally binding measures), shared (if the EU has not put across legally binding acts in certain areas, Member States [MS] are able to do it themselves) and supporting (the EU adopts legislation that complements and supports policies legislated by the MS) (Pavy, 2023). While transportation is a shared competency, taxation mainly remains a supporting one (Roels, 2022). Nevertheless, there are some areas where harmonising taxation among the MS is possible, such as VAT and tax on energy products (European Environmental Bureau [EEB], 2021). As this legislation requires unanimity, some MS have vetoed a European-level carbon tax in the past, contributing to the delayed implementation of this policy in the EU. 

EU Emission Trading System [ETS]

The EU ETS is the largest market mechanism for addressing GHG emissions (Appunn & Wettengel, 2023). ETS follows a cap-and-trade approach: the maximum CO2 emissions per year are set by the EU, and companies have to obtain allowances for every tonne of CO2 they emit. Companies either buy or receive the allowances from the EU directly, and they are also allowed to trade the allowances with each other. While the ETS covers aviation emissions, this scheme only applies to flights within the EU. Therefore, this scheme fails to adequately evaluate over 60% of total aviation emissions as international aviation is not covered by the policy (T&E, n.d.-c). 

Chicago Convention

The Chicago Convention mandated international kerosene tax exemption in 1944 (Ryan, 2023). Although it is often thought that the agreement prohibits kerosene taxation entirely, the Convention only regulates the taxation of fuel onboard, indicating that fuel can still be taxed ‘on land’ (T&E, 2023). Such interpretation may require renegotiation of international aviation agreements. Furthermore, the convention does not ban domestic taxation (Otley, 2022).

Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation [CORSIA]

Adopted in 2016, CORSIA is a global offsetting scheme introduced by the International Civil Aviation Organisation [ICAO] (Aviation Benefits Beyond Borders, n.d.). Its primary objective is achieving carbon-neutral growth of aviation emissions. Applied to international flights, this policy requires aircraft operators to offset any CO2 emissions growth above the 2020 baseline. Although ICAO aims to make CORSIA mandatory in 2027, it is uncertain whether all countries that initially signed up for the scheme will enforce it (Rao, 2024).

Carbon tax

Carbon tax is a market-based pricing mechanism aiming to combat the external cost of carbon emissions by setting a tax rate on them (World Bank, n.d.). This policy seeks to reduce emissions by making carbon-intensive goods more expensive, lowering demand for these goods and nudging producers to divert away from polluting fuels and technologies (Tax Foundation, n.d.; Manta et al., 2023). Regardless of its effectiveness, the carbon tax has thus far received little support, making it one of the least popular climate policy instruments (Hagmann et al., 2019). While this is partly due to an overall aversion to taxes among people, carbon taxes are particularly undesirable as the subsequent price increases burden consumers.

Kerosene tax 

Article 24 of the Chicago Convention states that kerosene onboard international flights cannot be taxed by either the departure or the arrival state (Ryan, 2023). Countries may unilaterally tax kerosene, but they run a high risk of tankering - an aviation practice where aircrafts load more fuel than necessary for a trip to take advantage of lower fuel prices at the airport of origin (Tyers, 2020). The European Union remains a tax-free zone for kerosene, which explains why tickets for intra-European flights are relatively cheaper than other travel options operating on similar routes. As current pricing policies only capture around 15% of the total revenues that could have been collected if the sector had been adequately taxed, failing to put a price on aviation emissions will only increase the existing tax gap in Europe (T&E, 2023).

Analysis

Path 1: Individual behavioural shift

Using the classification of environmentally relevant behaviours (Stern, 2020), air travel can be seen as a form of high-impact behaviour that can be modified through individual behaviour changes or supporting relevant policies (Berneiser et al., 2022). Nevertheless, contemporary society's deeply ingrained nature of leisure travel explains why people are reluctant to adapt their aeromobility practices (Higham et al., 2014). This reluctance is also observed among people who have adopted sustainable behavioural practices outside their flying behaviour (Árnadóttir et al., 2021). To understand why this occurs, I will briefly outline the psychological mechanisms behind one’s decision to (not) fly. 

People often fail to practise what they preach, and air travel is no exception (Stone & Fernandez, 2008). Flyers’ Dilemma represents this internal conflict between the personal desire to fly and concern over the environmental consequences of air travel (Higham et al., 2014). When people are aware of this misalignment, cognitive dissonance may be evoked, prompting individuals to modify either behaviour or beliefs (Festinger, 1957). Due to people possessing an intrinsic need for consistency, acknowledging this attitude-behaviour gap causes internal discomfort that they ought to resolve. Instead of flying less, most people alter their cognitions about flying by downplaying its environmental impact. When confronted with individual responsibility, people also avoid holding themselves accountable by activating several denial mechanisms. Some include shifting the focus to businesses and governments (Hares et al., 2010), seeing climate change as a remote threat (Jacobson et al., 2020) and believing that technology will mitigate the issue (Lorenzoni et al., 2007). Ultimately, many consider travelling an essential form of freedom that should not be restricted (Young et al., 2014). 

While reducing the demand for carbon-intensive goods and services cannot occur without changing consumption patterns, it is evident that our flying habits remain deeply ingrained in social norms, creating significant challenges to their possible alteration. In other words, the required level of public behavioural shift is unlikely to occur without regulatory interventions. As flying habits are rooted in attitudes, beliefs, and social norms, regulatory interventions must target these psychological underpinnings to evoke desired change effectively. The EU may implement informational campaigns that frame flying as undesirable, emphasising its consequences and inducing hypocrisy among highly mobile consumers. Drawing inspiration from anti-tobacco campaigns, policymakers could frame excessive flying as highly addictive behaviour, arousing guilt among consumers through slogans such as “warming: flying causes harm to yourself and others.”

Path 2: Utilising current legislation (the ETS and CORSIA) 

Currently, the ETS remains the EU’s most comprehensive market mechanism for achieving its climate ambitions (Mai, 2021). While this cap-and-trade scheme initially included all departing and arriving flights to and from the European Economic Area, the EU has since reduced its scope to EU-based airlines only due to stakeholder pressure (Evans, 2016). To address this regulation gap, ICAO introduced CORSIA, an international scheme to facilitate carbon-neutral growth through emissions offsetting (Aviation Benefits Beyond Borders, n.d.). The geographic scope of CORSIA appears promising, as it aims to harmonise global efforts in decarbonising aviation. Nevertheless, its implementation in the EU remains an issue, given its legislative overlap with the ETS system (Cammeo, 2022). This raises an important question: Should the EU prioritise global measures such as CORSIA over its internal ETS measures to address aviation decarbonisation more effectively?

Given its reliance on offsets and less stringent targets compared to the ETS, integrating CORSIA into EU law in a way that replaces existing mechanisms would diminish the Union’s overarching climate ambitions (T&E, 2019). Although CORSIA could be considered the primary mitigation tool for international aviation emissions, its shortfalls extend beyond the ETS. Firstly, as CORSIA only applies to international flights, this policy fails to account for almost 40% of the contribution to global aviation emissions caused by domestic traffic (World Bank, 2016). Additionally, this mechanism will not be able to achieve an absolute reduction in emissions since it is only applied to aviation emissions surpassing the 2020 level. Thus, airlines will not incur any costs for emissions below this threshold. Most importantly, CORSIA’s reliance on carbon offsets not only fails to address the root source of emissions but also fails to incentivise airlines to transition to using sustainable fuels.

Unlike what the EU can achieve with the ETS, ICAO as an organisation lacks robust enforcement mechanisms for CORSIA and its other regulations. This highlights one of the most pressing international climate policy issues - the inability to enforce most agreed-upon measures. In contrast, the EU has the legal power to mandate, implement and enforce internal policies such as the ETS. In light of that, CORSIA should be regarded as a complementary regulation rather than a replacement for the ETS. Among several possibilities, the most efficient implementation scenario would be to keep intra-EU flights within the scope of ETS while applying CORSIA to flights to and from non-EU destinations, as suggested by Scheelhaase and colleagues (2018). The dual approach would allow the EU to leverage its internal regulatory power effectively while encouraging global emission reduction efforts. 

Through this scenario, the EU could maintain control over its within-border emissions. Simultaneously, the complementary regulation through CORSIA would ensure that international flights, which otherwise fall out of the scope of EU regulation, are also accounted for. Utilising both legal frameworks would extend the impact of EU decarbonisation policies beyond its borders, ensuring a more comprehensive strategy towards mitigating aviation’s environmental impact. 

Path 3: Implementing kerosene taxation

Effective pollution pricing is considered a necessary step towards decarbonising aviation (T&E, 2023). The EU’s approach to environmental policy is underpinned by the Polluter Pays Principle, mandating that environmental degradation costs need to be borne by polluters rather than citizens (OECD, 2022). However, as kerosene remains untaxed, this principle is yet to be implemented in aviation. This raises ethical questions about kerosene’s privileged position within the legal framework. In a society where taxes are imposed on everything from petrol to menstrual products, the kerosene tax break stands out as a historical anomaly with far-reaching social, environmental and economic consequences.

In 2022, European governments suffered a monetary loss of almost 35 billion EUR due to the aviation tax gap (T&E, 2023). The money raised through kerosene taxation could redirect these funds towards greener transportation alternatives. For example, allocating it towards rail companies would help lower ticket prices and improve high-speed railroads, making trains more competitive. By narrowing the price and convenience gap between the two transport options, this shift would likely encourage more individuals to choose trains over planes. Alternatively, kerosene taxation can address distributional problems through revenue recycling (Teusch & Ribansky, 2021). Higher-income households tend to fly significantly more than lower-income households (Gössling & Humpe, 2020), so frequent flyers would bear the most significant tax burden. In order to address equity concerns, this tax revenue could be used to subsidise public transport, making it more affordable for lower-income households. 

Despite the clear economic and social benefits of kerosene taxation, the question remains if the public would accept such a policy. While no research thus far has assessed the level of public support for this policy on an EU level, Douenne and Fabre (2020) have conducted a study on a sample of the French population, revealing that the large majority would favour kerosene taxation. Higher levels of public acceptance for this policy compared to other forms of carbon pricing, such as petrol tax, could stem from the perceived fairness. Unlike the petrol tax, which indiscriminately impacts people of all socioeconomic backgrounds, the kerosene tax targets a more discretionary, luxury activity. Thus, taxing jet fuel burdens those who choose to fly, sparing individuals who opt not to engage in air travel due to economic circumstances or personal preferences. This suggests that the absence of kerosene tax is not due to public disapproval but the deliberate decision of policymakers to exclude aviation from more rigid decarbonisation policies. In other words, the existing legal framework prioritises the aviation industry’s growth over social and environmental concerns.

Discussion

In addressing the complex challenge of aviation decarbonisation, three perspectives offer distinct approaches: focusing on individual behavioural change, enhancing existing policies like the ETS and CORSIA, and introducing kerosene taxation.

The first perspective focuses on individual behavioural change, making a case for regulatory interventions addressing norms, attitudes and beliefs regarding flying. Effective strategies could include informational campaigns aiming to elicit guilt among individuals by highlighting discrepancies between their attitudes and behaviour. However, this method requires existing environmental consciousness among consumers, which may not be universally present. Although guilt can be a powerful tool for social influence, it may also evoke negative responses (Hibbert et al., 2007). While consumer choices are impactful, relying on behavioural shifts alone is insufficient to achieve aviation decarbonisation, particularly as aeroplane ticket prices remain artificially low. Shifting social norms regarding aeromobility practices could require years, if not decades, as flying remains ingrained in contemporary lifestyles.

The second perspective assesses how existing policies, namely the ETS and CORSIA, could be simultaneously implemented in the EU to ensure a more comprehensive, practical approach to aviation decarbonisation. The ETS is a more rigid policy with stringent enforcement within the EU borders. Meanwhile, international aviation emissions falling out of its scope can be addressed by CORSIA. The two policies function complementarily rather than competitively, filling regulatory gaps where the individual policies fall short. As these instruments are already in place, they have the potential to facilitate a rapid transition towards a decarbonised Europe. However, neither has significantly decreased aviation emissions due to their inherent shortcomings. Both instruments fail to address aviation’s non-CO2 effects, such as nitrous oxides, soot, and water, representing over 65% of the sector’s impact on climate (T&E, 2023). Given their significant contribution to global warming, it is crucial to expand these frameworks to address these effects rigorously. Considering this shortcoming, the third perspective of introducing a kerosene tax emerges as a compelling alternative.

So, is taxing kerosene in Europe possible? The European Tax Directive [ETD] already allows for EU countries to implement this tax on between-member-states flights through bilateral agreements (T&E, 2020). As the top 6 emitters within the EU account for 72% of intra-EU emissions, bilateral taxation agreements between these countries would be the fastest and most effective way to introduce European kerosene taxation (T&E, 2020). Nevertheless, the decision-making process could still be slow as many bilateral agreements would be required, especially if the aim is to cover all aviation emissions within the EU. 

In the long run, implementing an EU-wide fuel tax would further accelerate Europe’s path towards climate neutrality. However, this would necessitate a revision of the ETD and a unanimous decision among all MS. It is highly probable that economies reliant on aviation, such as countries dependent on tourism, would veto this decision. This explains why aviation tax exemption still persists despite the lack of legal impediments preventing a kerosene tax. To achieve its climate ambitions, the EU must extend its efforts in aviation by taking a firm stance against kerosene tax exemption. These goals cannot be met without European-wide policies. For the change to occur, kerosene taxation needs to receive greater attention on the political agenda of EU institutions through internal initiatives or public pressure. 

Conclusion

Individuals, businesses, and governments all share the responsibility of mitigating the impact of climate change. Shifting the blame from one party to the other provides an incomplete narrative of the problem. In this paper, I argued that kerosene taxation represents the most direct approach that could mitigate aviation pollution effectively, act as a redistributive policy, and garner sufficient public support. Nonetheless, relying solely on this approach could lead to regulatory gaps and insufficient emissions reduction. A robust decarbonisation strategy must include a blend of all three approaches, leveraging the strengths of each to create resilient and sustainable outcomes. As each path addresses different aspects of the problem, their combined utilisation would ensure contributions on all three levels - individual, corporate and government.

We often hear that global problems demand global solutions. However, the international cooperation needed to combat climate change is consistently undermined by complexities surrounding climate, accountability and enforcement. As the impacts of climate change have only worsened over time, most international climate negotiations in the past three decades have been nothing more than failures. The pressure of powerful vested interests, such as the fossil fuel industry, implies that solely relying on global agreements may be insufficient. Nevertheless, regional authorities such as the EU not only have the legal power to implement and enforce the necessary decarbonisation measures but also lead by example. Through its commitments to global climate change efforts, the EU has positioned itself as an international leader in climate action (Oberthür & Dupont, 2021). By implementing an EU-wide fuel tax, this institution holds the potential to accelerate decarbonisation efforts worldwide by inspiring other countries to adopt similar measures. Such an initiative would reaffirm the EU’s role as a frontrunner in climate action and set a powerful precedent for enhanced international cooperation across various environmental domains.



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