Ryanair is now one of the highest emitters under the EU’s Emission Trading System (EU ETS), with official data released yesterday suggesting the airline has become the first non-coal plant to enter the top 10 of biggest polluters.

In what campaigners claim is a sign aviation is replacing coal as a leading emissions source within the EU, analysis of the figures reveals Ryanair now ranks as the tenth highest polluter in the EU ETS.

The Irish airline reported 9.8m tonnes of carbon pollution under the carbon trading scheme in 2018, up seven per cent on 2017 figures. 

The rest of the top 10 were coal power plants in Bulgaria, Poland and Germany, the analysis from campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E) revealed.

Airlines’ emissions covered under the EU ETS grew 5.7 per cent within Europe last year. Meanwhile overall EU carbon market emissions dropped 4.2 per cent, mainly thanks to a 6.4 per cent drop in emissions from the power and heat sector, according to Point Carbon.

The EU ETS only records emissions of flights within Europe, with some exceptions (flights to the Canaries, Madeira, the Azores). In many cases, airlines’ global emissions will be even higher.

Andrew Murphy, T&E’s aviation manager, said the emergence of Ryanair in the top 10 of emittors shows that while government action to curb coal use is taking effect, the aviation sector’s emissions are being left to grow unchecked. 

“Today’s figures show that government regulations matter,” Murphy told BusinessGreen. “We have set targets for renewable electricity, we’ve ended State Aid to coal plants in Europe. We have put in place strict efficiency targets for coal plants, Germany has established a coal commission to phase out coal. And the result is, people are burning less coal, and there’s fewer emissions.”

“On the other hand we’ve left aviation under-taxed, under-regulated, we’re not stepping in to decarbonise aviation in the way we have for the electricity sector. And so it’s inevitable that emissions are going to go up if this is how we treat aviation.”

Low cost airlines such as Ryanair typically have lower carbon emissions per passenger than their rivals, as they squeeze more passengers onto each flight – resulting in lower fuel use per head. Despite CEO Michael O’Leary once describing climate change concerns as “complete and utter rubbish”, Ryanair has promised to reduce its CO2 emissions per passenger from 66.7 grams per passenger mile to 61.4 grams by 2030. 

In response to the analysis, a spokesman for the airline said: “Ryanair is Europe’s greenest & cleanest airline. Passengers travelling on Ryanair have the lowest CO2 emissions per km travelled than any other airline.”

But T&E argues governments should not rely on voluntary efforts from the industry, and must do more to ensure aviation bears more of the cost of its environmental impact. Its recommendations include imposing a tax on kerosene use and a new mandate to force airlines to switch to zero emission jet fuel.

Some major emitters missed the April 1 deadline to report to the EU, including Air France. Where data was missing for 2018 – applicable to around eight per cent of reported aviation emissions – T&E said it had used 2017 data.

Murphy said the group is “confident” the top 10 wouldn’t change even when the missing data comes through. “Coal is on a general trend downwards,” he said. “We’re very confident the preliminary figures, based on our analysis, will hold up when the full figures come in.”

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