Can we count on zero-emissions planes and ships?

March 14, 2022

Transport & Environment (T&E) gathered innovative industry players and policy makers to discuss the future of zero-emission shipping and aviation.

For decades, aviation and shipping have been locked into the same fossil-burning technology, with dire consequences for Europe’s climate goals. We need to deploy new technologies and apply the right policies urgently if we are to reverse this. These solutions already exist, but technical and economic challenges abound. Yet, there is hope. We are seeing an eagerness by many venturing start-ups and innovating companies that are willing to accelerate the change to zero-emission shipping and flying. In the short term, energy efficiency and demand reduction play an important role in addressing this challenge. It can have an immediate effect on reducing emissions. In the longer term, sustainable solutions will replace dirty aviation and shipping fuels. 

In our online event “Acting now for the zero-emissions planes and ships of tomorrow” we witnessed this eagerness firsthand, as we explored what a carbon-free mobility world could look like. We brought research, companies, and policymakers together to discuss the way forward. Companies working on the zero-emissions solutions of tomorrow presented their latest innovations. The signs were positive: cutting-edge and promising tech is available. But the solutions out there can only be developed at scale if policies are designed to support these innovative concepts, and right now, the rules are slanted too in favour of the status quo. 

Wind and green fuels: how to sail guilt free 

The transition to zero-emission shipping will happen if, and only if, legislation is put in place that incentivises investment in green infrastructure and makes sustainable fuels competitive. 

A lot of actors are already working on greening the maritime sector, by developing and implementing new solutions at scale. The European Green Hydrogen Acceleration Center (EGHAC), represented at our webinar by Carina Krastel, is a consortium that aims to accelerate green hydrogen fuels projects by supporting the build-up of a supply chain. MAN ES (with Alexander Feindt attending the webinar) is a leading European manufacturer of ship engines that plans on delivering ammonia and methanol engines in the next few years. LMG Marin is a naval engineering company active in Norway, France, and Poland, that has already delivered several hydrogen ship projects. Another European company, Madoqua, presented projects of supply of hydrogen, methanol, and ammonia to main ports in Portugal. The solutions presented by our array of speakers demonstrated that zero-emission shipping is already happening and will only accelerate in the years to come. 

The breakout group dedicated to zero-emission shipping discussed the challenges of decarbonising the industry and the need to scale up sustainable fuels. But the current EU proposal for shipping, called “FuelEU Maritime” does not give enough predictability for green e-fuels to be deployed on the market. Additionally, as an operational expenditure (OPEX) of zero-emission shipping far outweighs the capital expenditure (CAPEX), shipping companies do not only need policy support for the installation of new technologies, but also for fuel costs. 

Instead of supporting these new fuels, FuelEU risks locking in even greater gas demand. That was a bad policy even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it’s an even more disastrous one now. That’s why investing in LNG infrastructure is in no way a clean long-term solution, as we have outlined in another briefing. Continuing polluting fuels from the past or facilitating the transition to a clean future without LNG but renewable e-fuels is not a choice. It is rather imperative to not produce sunk costs with technologies that will soon be outdated and too expensive seeing higher carbon prices. 

Aside from dedicated policies to boost e-fuels, more emphasis should be put to reduce fuel consumption, which could be achieved by mandating zero-emission berths and supporting wind sails technologies. Last but not least, the availability of supply and refueling infrastructure in ports are crucial for investment decisions in zero-emission ships. And in order to secure all this, legislative action is key.

Can we fly green?

The aviation sector needs to be decarbonized at the very latest by 2050, but better before.

Demand reduction plays an important role in addressing this challenge. It is a very fast, efficient, and infrastructure-neutral approach. For the remaining emissions, we need smart solutions. 

Reducing transport demand in aviation is one crucial step. Conscious individual choices are an important contribution, but can only go so far. Changes on the structural level are desperately needed and inevitable when trying to avert the looming climate crisis. We cannot predict the future. But for now, we have a pretty good estimation of what it could look like. 

Zero-emission technologies are already being developed and implemented. The demonstrator technologies show that market penetration will be sooner than we would have initially expected. This means policies for green aviation can be even more ambitious. 

Electric flying 

Electric aviation is already a reality: Pipistrel has been a pioneer in this sector and developed the first EASA-certified electric engine for use in the Velis Electro, as explained by the company’s CTO, Tine Tomažič. In the nearer future, the company Wright – represented at the webinar by its CEO, Jeffrey Engler – will be launching an electric aircraft by 2026, powered entirely by electric batteries and based on a retrofitted BAe 146, and transporting 100 passengers for a one-hour flight. Heart Aerospace, while maintaining the same target of 2026, bases its electric propulsion project on a brand new 19-seater aircraft, the ES-19, explained Anders Forslund, founder and CEO of the Swedish aerospace company. Until now, the energy density of electric batteries has been a challenge. But, recent breakthroughs in Aluminium-Air batteries could be the solution for electric planes, with the ability to fly longer ranges.

Hydrogen planes 

Hydrogen propulsion is another promising pathway for zero-emission flying, with ZeroAvia and Universal Hydrogen expected to offer hydrogen-powered regional aircraft for commercial flights as early as 2024. In the years and decades after that, technology development is expected to bring to market larger hydrogen aircraft to fly medium and even long haul routes. To achieve that, industry representatives spoke loud and clear on the need for the sector to be ambitious and to create its own future. Moreover, they stressed the need for industry cooperation, since hydrogen aviation will not happen in a vacuum, and a hydrogen ecosystem needs to be created including aircraft, infrastructure, and green hydrogen supply. Speakers agreed that policymakers need to provide positive incentives for zero-emission technology.

Sustainable aviation fuels

While hydrogen and electric aviation will be the long-term solution, sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) are a major key for carbon-neutral flying in the near future. These, on paper, are a more straightforward solution to decarbonise aviation, because the fuels can be used in conventional aircraft and don’t require substantial changes in engine technology. Power-to-liquid solutions (PtL) – which are SAFs composed of synthetically produced liquid hydrocarbons – are a very promising solution. 

Using renewable electricity and direct air capture (DAC) seems to be the most favourable and scalable technology available, with the added benefit that no infrastructure change is needed to drop the fuels in the engines. However, we still have to wait before we can fly with these fuels: production plants are yet to be built, and capacity is nowhere at the levels we need. Only then can we start talking about a viable solution to decarbonise aviation. Hence, strict SAF mandates are needed in order to give producers the security of mass producing their products. This will also benefit the funding projects for future SAF plants. 

Although, sufficiently high mandates are only one lever. Revenues generated from penalties paid for not complying with the mandate could be used to set up a dedicated SAF fund. Ambitious funding programmes and guarantees will support companies that still need to prove the feasibility of their innovation at a larger scale. And this is what we need, if we are to see a carbon neutral future for aviation. “We are at a crucial moment in time, and call on policy makers to take concrete action and create a market for direct air captured fuels through the RefuelEU Aviation proposal,” demands Helen Bray, European Policy Director at Carbon Engineering. 

In short: both ReFuelEU Aviation and FuelEU Maritime need to increase the share of renewable e-fuels. Currently, policies are designed towards the incumbent dirty fuels, not restricting the use of LNG or controversial biofuels enough. They are inhibiting the rise of future-proof clean and sustainable fuels as e-fuels. 

The event speakers were clear: the right political framework is needed to bring about zero-carbon aviation. While efficiency measures and demand management are first and necessary steps, technological change needs to follow suit. And this needs to be fostered rather than neglected by unambitious policies. European innovation can bring about change and pioneer zero-emission technologies, but policy needs to follow suit. Setting the right incentives will facilitate the scale-up of innovations. Transport & Environment is asking for a 2025 sub-mandate for direct air capture and higher quotas for PtL-fuels. Advanced biofuels and especially used cooking oil (UCO), in contrast, need to be capped at limited levels. Biofuels have unintended side effects that have unsustainable consequences. Feedstocks like used cooking oils are not scalable to the quantities needed for aviation and can have disastrous consequences for the environment. Increasing the share of animal fats in the fuel mix, which are also mentioned in Annex B of the feedstock list, would be cross subsidising industrial animal farming, another major contributor of greenhouse gases. By investing in the right technologies, we can leapfrog the incremental efficiency improvements of aircraft, which are without a doubt necessary, but not sufficient. 

The shipping industry is nothing different. Efficiency improvements are indispensable. The shift to e-fuels, e.g. e-ammonia must not be delayed. While e-fuels produced from renewable hydrogen are the most feasible solutions for long-distance shipping, battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cells can be a solution for short flights and boat trips. To achieve zero-emission shipping by 2050 at the latest, the sector needs a mandate in legislation to deploy a minimum share of e-fuels in this decade.

Philipp Engelkamp, Managing Director and Co-Founder of SAF-producer INERATEC summarised: “It is crucial to start with the production of e-kerosene and sustainable shipping fuels now. Only then, we can generate the required volumes, defend our market leadership worldwide and create thousands of jobs in Europe.”

What future for zero-emissions planes and ships? 

We need to think ahead. What kind of plane do you want to fly on in ten years? Or better said – do you still want to be able to fly? The right guidelines need to be set today to set the path for the development of future-proof technologies. By 2050, we will need to have fully decarbonised the aviation industry, if we see any future for our planet. This includes non-CO2-effects. If you want to fly green beforehand, we need to act together and quickly to ramp up green policies. 

We need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels – and the war in Ukraine has shown this even more. Demand management is a short-term solution. Focusing on efficiency improvements is important, but won’t keep up with the growth in emissions. 

We all want to travel. And we don’t want this to be a compromise on our health, autonomy, or environment. Let’s work together. By setting the right policies, we can create a long-term future for aviation and shipping.

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