2.1 million tonnes. Yes, you read that right.
This past winter, over 100,000 partially or wholly empty flights took off from EU-based airports, carrying with them nothing more than a cabin crew. These so-called “ghost flights” emitted over 2.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and were operated solely to satisfy EU regulations.
However, airlines such as Lufthansa Air, which operated over 18,000 ghost flights during this period, are not to blame for this phenomenon. EU mandates required airlines to execute 80% of scheduled flights to maintain flight slots at various airports across Europe, and airlines that fell below this threshold would be at risk of losing the ability to operate at certain airports. The EU is directly responsible for the emissions caused by these ghost flights, and its justification of ensuring “efficient use of airport capacity while benefiting consumers” does not outweigh the consequences of its actions.
Let’s put that 2.1 million tonnes of CO2 into perspective. Given these flights took place over the duration of roughly three months, some basic extrapolation tells us this equates to approximately 8 million tonnes of CO2 per year. The environmental toll of these flights are on par with the annual emissions of countries such as Luxembourg or Jamaica, or that of 1.4 million gas-powered cars.
Pollution of this magnitude over such a short period of time presents a drastic risk to the environment. The Earth’s atmosphere is not built to withstand emissions of this caliber, and given how fragile it already is (and how close we are to the infamous 1.5 °C “point of no return”), any unnecessary waste poses an existential threat to humankind.
Now, I do not need to explain how detrimental 2.1 million tonnes of CO2 is for the climate. However, such emissions have extensive implications for other international issues — specifically, human rights.
In October of last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted and passed a motion that declared the right of all people to a “clean and sustainable environment.” With this in mind, the EU’s policy on flight mandates must be viewed as a violation of the human rights of all peoples, especially those in developing nations more susceptible to the effects of climate change.
Just this past year, coastal countries have experienced the devastating consequences of rising sea level, and arid regions have fallen victim to agonizing droughts. Climate refugees have been forced from their own countries due to uninhabitable living conditions, and countries such as the Philippines have sustained substantial economic losses of over $4.5 billion due to storms and other damages caused by increasingly dangerous weather conditions.
With an understanding of environmental justice comes a conception of environmental injustice, and incentivizing airlines to operate near-empty flights to maintain flight slots is nothing short of unjust. Any unnecessary contribution to global emissions, let alone one that does nothing to contribute to the global economy or international peace, must be condemned and only serves to counter the efforts of international law regarding the reduction of greenhouse gasses.
The Kyoto Protocol, an extension of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was ratified in 1997 to establish emissions thresholds for signing parties, and ultimately create a foundation of accountability for states to limit their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. Although this convention only applies to UN members that have ratified the treaty, its contents can still be applied here.
The EU has violated the very notion of the Kyoto Protocol, as well as fundamental human rights principles, by motivating airlines to carry out ghost flights and otherwise threatening their ability to conduct business. Such a convention serves as a motivating and legally binding force to limit each country’s contributions to global emissions. The EU regulations have done nothing but incentivize the antithesis of the protocol, and this cannot be overlooked.
As it currently stands and as aforementioned, the EU has reduced its restrictions to 64% for the upcoming summer, but this is simply inadequate. The EU must allow airlines to operate on a demand-informed basis, proportional to the frequency of travelers, without subjecting them to the potential loss of time slots and thus profit. Until this happens, their contribution to climate justice and international human rights will remain net negative.