Greening aviation before take-off

There were few more defining transport trends in 2020 than the near absence of flights from our skies. Following the Covid-19 outbreak, business trips were moved online while holidaymakers were forced to vacation closer to home. This led to a short-term decrease in aviation emissions. However, air traffic is expected to return as restrictions on movement are lifted. 

But the year did see progress in clean aviation fuels, especially e-kerosene and the EU pressed ahead with ambitious measures for the sector under its Green Deal. Much still needs to be done, though. With many airlines now at the mercy of public bailouts, now is the time for policymakers to push for green conditionality and ensure the public’s demand for climate action is fulfilled .

Infographic Aviation

Before life stopped

In January, as part of the Green Deal, the European Commission announced a new legislative initiative called ReFuelEU which should set the necessary framework to drive the uptake of sustainable advanced fuels (SAFs) by airlines. New fuels that can be dropped into existing aircraft, with no need for a redesign, offer the most effective means of cutting emissions from the sector. ReFuelEU will be the first ever EU piece of legislation specifically dedicated to regulate aviation fuels. However, for this to be successful, the Commission needs to ensure it prioritises e-kerosene and does not set targets that are so high they encourage the use of unsustainable alternative fuels - such as biofuels.

Post-Covid recovery

Then the pandemic hit. With flights cancelled across the continent, European airlines turned to governments to bail them out; bailouts conspicuously lacking in green conditionality. In response, Transport & Environment, Carbon Market Watch and Greenpeace created an airline bailout tracker using publicly available data to keep track of how much airlines receive. Without green conditions, they fear, public money will simply be used to fund airlines’ polluting practices. 

More promisingly, as part of its Covid recovery, the European aviation sector adopted more ambitious climate goals in a round table report which was agreed with industry, T&E and other representatives of civil society (unions, passengers). The report commits to 2019 being the peak year for emissions, significant cuts to emissions by 2030, and net zero for all flights departing from Europe by 2050. All signatories also agreed that the bloc’s carbon market, which includes flights within Europe, needs reform. 

It’s not all about CO2

Yet it isn’t just CO2 we should be worried about. The European Commission published a report on aviation’s non-CO2 climate impact. The study provided a long overdue admission that CO2 emissions are only the tip of the iceberg when accounting for the true effect of flying on global warming, which is now estimated to be three times that of CO2 alone. Non-CO2 impacts were also included in the EU’s Sustainable Smart Mobility Strategy, which commits to follow-up on the report findings, as well as cut emissions from short haul aviation. 

Airbus and the planes of the future

2020 saw the airline manufacturing giant Airbus publish three concepts for zero-emissions airplanes to be powered by hydrogen with ranges similar to current aircraft used for intra-EU travel. Whether they truly mark the beginning of a serious change in aircraft design depends on what Airbus and governments do next. But they are a sign the company recognises that aviation’s blind reliance on fossil-fuelled jet engines has an end date. Whether that end comes soon enough for the climate depends on whether we introduce binding CO2 targets accompanied by laws that provide investment certainty for zero-emission fuels and aircraft.