Opinion

Europe gets one step closer to a green flight

July 25, 2022

A landmark vote in the European Parliament last week secured the role of sustainable fuels in the decarbonisation of European aviation.

The climate impact of aviation is well known, but too often ignored. Only a few facts and figures are needed to underline its seriousness. Aviation traffic in Europe grew 67% between 2005 and 2019 and its emissions by 24%, meaning they now represent 4.9% of the bloc’s pre-Covid total. And that just covers the CO2 effects.  The European Union Aviation Safety Agency estimates non-CO2 effects account for two thirds of aviation’s total climate impact. 

The problem is growing and, as every year passes, will need even more ambitious measures to tackle it. Before 2030, technological solutions won’t be ready at scale and demand management is key to reducing aviation’s emissions. This is easily achievable with a reduction in corporate travel, stemming from the lessons learned during the pandemic. A reduction in corporate travel to 50% of pre-Covid levels in Europe can cut CO2 emissions by as much as 32.6 MtCO2 by 2030. This is equivalent to taking 16 million polluting cars off the road.

Demand management is the most effective means to reducing emissions this decade, but if regulators adopt ambitious mitigation policies now, it can be overtaken in time by solutions such as alternative fuels and zero-emission aircraft. 

A landmark vote on 07 July in the European Parliament showed that legislators are on track to make this happen. Lawmakers voted on a crucial piece of legislation on sustainable aviation fuels, called ReFuelEU. The initiative aims to boost supply and demand for green jet fuels in the EU, by setting staggered blending mandates across EU airports. The result of the vote was a clear endorsement of the world’s most ambitious clean fuel mandate for aviation. 

On the table was a proposal to determine what exactly constitutes a green fuel. Last year, as part of Europe’s 2030 climate package, the European Commission selected a strict list of feedstocks to be used in our planes. The proposal excluded crop-based biofuels, as they can have disastrous impacts on our climate and biodiversity. Instead, it prioritised advanced biofuels (fuels made from wastes and residues) and synthetic fuels, such as e-kerosene. 

But in a dramatic turn of events, lawmakers in the European Parliament tabled a proposal that snuck in harmful biofuels – palm oil by-products PFADs and intermediate crops – as well as animal crops in the definition. The argument in favor? Airlines can only comply with high SAF mandates, and keep reasonable ticket prices for customers, if the feedstocks are widely available (in other words cheap).  

But what could have been a momentous proposal for European aviation was now going to cause more harm than good, with fuels linked to deforestation, loss of biodiversity and increasing food prices. PFADs, for example, are already used in other industries, including soap-making, livestock feed, and, in rare cases, combustion for energy. When they are diverted from these existing uses, they are replaced with virgin palm. Palm oil has disastrous impacts on global land use change and emissions.

In an unprecedented move, airlines and green groups, with easyJet’s support, wrote to MEPs ahead of the vote to draw attention to the issues with palm oil by-products and biofuels. The aviation industry’s reputation was on the line, with fake green solutions potentially fuelling European flights. 

With industry and NGO letters flying around Brussels and Strasbourg, all eyes were on the vote. But the outcome was clear: green means green. The European Parliament barred the use of intermediate crops and PFADs, from ReFuelEU. Edible animal fats did stay, however, but the worst of the damage was averted. And finally, the Parliament increased the ambition on the use of synthetic fuels, which are the only fuels that can be sustainably scaled up to reduce aviation’s climate impact.

The definition of synthetic aviation fuels will now also include renewable electricity and green hydrogen. This momentous decision shows that the EU wants to incentivise and accelerate the development of zero-emission aircraft. 

But the vote was about more than just feedstocks. Lawmakers gave the green light for sustainable aviation fuels as one of the main tools to decarbonise aviation in Europe. A technology has been found and approved to bring aviation emissions close to zero in 2050. 

The impact on European industry will be momentous. The European Parliament’s support for synthetic fuels will spur investment in e-kerosene, in a market where Europe is already a leader

The final legislative hurdle is yet to come. In September, the three main European institutions – the Parliament, the Council and the Commission – enter into what is known as ‘trilogues’, where the final proposal will be debated. It’s important that decision makers keep the momentum going by excluding the last remaining problematic biofuel feedstock – edible animal fats – from Europe’s green fuel mandate. 

This op-ed was first published in Aviation Week.