In significant victory, Europe’s highest court upholds EU law that curbs aviation pollution

Early this morning, the highest court in Europe read out a decision in Luxembourg that evoked cheers across the environmental community: the Court of Justice of the European Union had decided the world’s first program to reduce global warming pollution from aviation, the EU Aviation Directive, is fully compliant with international law.

The decision was a strong finish at the EU court, where United/Continental and American Airlines — and their trade association, known at the time as Air Transport Association of America (now called Airlines for America) — had challenged the legality of the Aviation Directive, and EDF, in partnership with five other U.S. and European environmental organizations, intervened in support of the EU law.

EDF, with our other European and American co-intervenors, applauded today’s decision, saying in a joint statement:

Today’s decision makes clear Europe's innovative law to reduce emissions from international flights is fully consistent with international law, does not infringe on the sovereignty of other nations, and is distinct from the charges and taxes subject to treaty limitations.

Today's outcome was generally anticipated, as an Advocate General – a senior legal advisor appointed by the Court of Justice of the European Union – issued a formal recommendation to the Court supporting the legality of the EU law in October.  That opinion called the airlines’ challenges “unconvincing”, “untenable”, “erroneous” and based on a “highly superficial reading” of the Aviation Directive.

Aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions, rising 3 to 4% per year.  Though airlines often say they agree with environmental groups that these growing emissions need to be addressed, until now, the sector has escaped regulations that would require emissions reductions.  But the EU Aviation Directive, the very law airlines were suing to get out of complying with, will cut 183 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually by 2020, the equivalent of taking 30 million cars off the road every year.

While the airlines were suing in the EU, however, at home they were lauding their environmental performance in advertising and media campaigns.

Annie Petsonk, EDF’s International Counsel, referenced these claims in her statement after the decision was announced:

It is high time airlines actually live up to their green claims, and comply with the EU law, which will cut pollution and spark low-carbon innovation.  Americans invented the airplane, now it’s time for us to create climate-friendly skies. The EU’s leadership challenges U.S. airlines to take charge and deliver to the flying public clean and green air travel.

This decision on the case now returns to the UK High Court, where airlines had originally brought the suit challenging UK regulations implementing the law, and which will implement the recommendations of today’s ruling.

And in the meantime, the Aviation Directive begins January 1 – now with legal affirmation – to hold all airlines accountable for their emissions from flights using European airports.  We hope the airlines use the new year as a fresh start to reduce their emissions, fly cleaner, and embrace the opportunity provided by the Aviation Directive to move to a lower-carbon aviation sector.

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