Four positives for sustainable aviation in this annus horribilis

By Matteo Mirolo and Andrew Murphy

The Covid-19 pandemic inflicted a public health catastrophe on the world together with an unprecedented economic crisis. In the midst of all this sorrow, however, it is a relief that a third item was not added to this list: climatic back-pedaling. Indeed, with most of the aviation sector on its knees, there were fears that long overdue action to rein in its growing emissions would be delayed, once again, out of so-called “economic pragmatism”. On the contrary, 2020 was a year of opportunity to build a green transformation for aviation. Here are four positives in this annus horribilis:

In January, as part of the Green Deal, the European Commission announced a new legislative initiative called ReFuelEU. When it’s presented next March, ReFuelEU should set the necessary framework to drive the uptake of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) in the EU. 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. However, for this to be successful, the Commission needs to ensure it prioritises e-fuels and does not set targets that are so high they encourage the use of unsustainable alternative fuels. We don’t want a repeat of previous European energy fiascos, when EU legislation forced the use of forest-felling biofuels in cars.  

In September, Airbus published 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 accepts 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.

In November the Directors of the European Investment Bank (EIB) approved a Climate Roadmap that withdraws support for the expansion of airports. This is excellent news, as the aviation sector needs to decarbonise, not grow further. Other investors, public and private, should follow the EIB’s lead in putting money into the sector’s long overdue decarbonisation efforts. Europe’s aviation sector needs clean technology, not more runways and terminals. 

Also in November, the European Commission published a report on aviation’s non-CO2 climate impact. This study provides 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. This paves the way for future legislation on this burning issue.

2021 will be the year when many of the initiatives mentioned above will come to fruition, or at least we hope. Only then, and not without some more elbow grease on our part, will we know whether Covid-19 has actually been the unintended ally of aviation’s green transformation.

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