EU countries procrastinate on greener aviation

By Lasse Skou Andersen & Anders Godtfred-Rasmussen.

A lack of coordination between national airspaces means planes can’t take the direct route to their destinations, in turn leading to unnecessary emissions of CO2. Airlines and environmental organisations are furious that the EU has not yet delivered on its promise to solve the problem

The SK536 flies from Dublin to Stockholm and back several times a week. A common European airspace could shorten the distance it has to travel Illustration: flightradar24.com
The SK536 flies from Dublin to Stockholm and back several times a week. A common European airspace could shorten the distance it has to travel Illustration: flightradar24.com

It is 9:20 on a March morning in Dublin and SK536, a Scandinavian Airlines Boeing 737, is about to take off on its usual route to Arlanda airport in Stockholm.

But the plane doesn’t go directly to the Swedish capital. Due to a lack of coordination between the Norwegian and Swedish airspaces, the pilot must take a detour over Oslo.

The SK536 is not the only plane taking a detour this morning. According to estimates from the European Commission, the lack of co-ordination between national airspaces means that European planes take a detour of 49 kilometres per trip in average. And with 33,000 flights on a busy day, a significant amount of fuel and time is wasted, meaning extra costs for Airline companies and unnecessary emissions of CO2 greenhouse gasses.

Reports from EUROCONTROL, the EU body dealing with aviation, show that 7-12% of emissions from aviation in Europe are caused by such detours and delays. In total, aviation accounts for 13% of CO2 emissions from the transport sector.

“The reasons for the detours are several and very technical. But one of them is that some air spaces are more expensive to fly in than others in terms of tariffs. This means that it can actually be cheaper for airlines to choose a longer route, silly as that may sound,” explains Niels Remmer, Head of Department at the Danish Transport Authority, who has been working with the topic for more than ten years.

VIDEO: Niels Remmer explains in-depth why planes zig-zag through Europe

Solution there – but not implemented

The problem with the detours was actually supposed to be solved by now. Back in 2004, the EU, Norway, and Switzerland agreed on defragmenting airspaces through a directive called the Single European Sky.

The move was supported by the Association of European Airlines, which believes it could save the industry 4 billion Euros per year in tariffs and fuel expenses.

A key element in the legislation is the establishment of 9 so-called Functional Airspace Blocs (FABs), which would replace the existing national airspaces. The idea was that fewer airspaces with more common standards would enable the planes to take more optimal routes.

The deadline for getting the FABs up and running was in December 2012. But only two blocs – Denmark-Sweden and The United Kingdom-Ireland – have actually been established.

Some countries – for instance Germany – are having second thoughts. While they acknowledge the possibility of cutting emissions, they feel other parts of the directive are going too far. This is especially the case when it comes to how much more cost-efficient the air traffic controllers should operate.

Industry and environmentalists united

The delay of the Single Sky angers environmental organisation Greenpeace.

“Aviation is overall a relatively small emitter compared to other industries, but that is no excuse for procrastination. There is no reason flights should be longer than absolutely necessary,” says Tarjei Haaland, Greenpeace Nordic’s spokesperson on climate.

The airlines agree. They don’t think member states are doing enough to implement the directive, and say the commission isn’t pushing hard enough.

“We believe that the inefficiencies originate equally from the lack of enforcement from the European Commission and the lack of cooperation among the Member States,” says spokesperson for the Association of European Airlines, Viktoria Vajnai.

‘A low-hanging fruit’

The commissioner for climate action, Connie Hedegaard, doesn’t agree that the commission isn’t doing enough. It is up to the member states to live up to their promises, she says.

“When it comes to doing something to help the climate, this is one of the lowest hanging fruits. The member states must deliver. We won’t lower the emission targets,” she says.

Sources in the commission say that transport commissioner Siim Kallas has made it one of his top priorities to enforce the Single Sky directive.

In January, opening letters were sent to the countries that do not yet fulfill their obligations. The states now have until the end of March to explain to the commission why they haven’t established their FABs yet.

This marks the initiation of a process where member states that continue to ignore the directive could eventually be brought to the European Court of Justice.

READ MORE: EU Countries could face trials over aviation

READ MORE: Air traffic controllers impede common EU airspace

Fact box:

CO2 emissions from aviation account for about 3% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

By 2020, global international aviation emissions are projected to be around 70% higher than in 2005 – even if fuel efficiency improves by 2% per year.

Sources: EEA, ICAO

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