How can we succeed in reducing the climate impact of aviation? Negotiations on this issue between member states, the European Commission and the European Parliament dragged on for months. Industry and environmental organizations vacillated between hope and fear. But now the three instances have agreed on the most important cornerstones – above all on binding quotas for sustainable fuels. All sides seem to be able to live with the result, at least based on the first reactions. “The EU is ready for a more sustainable future for aviation,” said Frans Timmermans, Vice President of the European Commission and responsible for the so-called “European Green Deal”.
According to current calculations, air traffic accounts for less than three percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. However, several factors threaten to ensure that the industry will soon report far worse numbers. After the extraordinary years of the corona pandemic, in which air traffic was drastically reduced, strong growth is now on the horizon again. And this currently only seems to be hampered by the global shortage of skilled workers and problems in the supply chain. New, fuel-efficient jets are not replacing the old ones fast enough. At the same time, there are few readily available technological solutions that can contain the environmental impact of a new generation of machines. It will be many decades before really large airplanes can be powered by hydrogen. Based on today’s level of technology, batteries are far too heavy. So most of what might work for cars, ships or trains doesn’t work for airplanes.
The greatest hopes of the industry itself, politicians and the major environmental organizations are therefore in the so-called Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), i.e. fuels based on sustainable raw materials or synthetically produced, whose CO₂ balance is dramatically better than that of conventional kerosene.
The agreement in the trilateral talks came after a marathon meeting early Wednesday morning. The most important element are blending quotas: from 2025, all flights that take off from an airport in the European Union must blend at least two percent SAF. In 2030, the quota will be six percent, which is significantly higher than the commission originally called for. By 2050, for which aviation has also promised climate neutrality, the quota will then rise to 70 percent. The remaining 30 percent is expected to come from other factors – more efficient aircraft and air traffic control, as well as offsets to allow airlines to compensate for their remaining carbon emissions.
So far, sustainable fuels have hardly been available
The aviation industry now has planning security, at least at the political level. She knows what she has to deliver. A completely different question, however, is whether it can also deliver. Because sustainable fuels are indeed a promising solution on paper and will probably be the only realistic solution for a long time to help air traffic in terms of climate impact. However, so far they are hardly available. All the capacities currently available worldwide are sufficient for around 0.1 percent of the fuel requirement. You are literally a drop in the ocean. And SAF is very expensive, around five times more expensive than kerosene. In order for the transformation of the aviation industry to really succeed, huge amounts of money have to be invested in building up production.
The environmental organization Transport & Environment (T&E) emphasized that the agreement not only prescribes SAF quotas, but also for synthetic fuel. From the point of view of the association, its production can be scaled up on an industrial scale without the unwanted side effects of biofuels. By 2035 at the latest, two percent of the fuel consumed in the EU must be synthetically produced. T&E even described it as “historic” that the non-CO₂ effects of aviation are also taken into account in the regulations. These include, for example, the contrails caused by airplanes. The organization estimates that these account for two-thirds of the climate impact of aviation. But now the chemical composition of all fuel is to be regulated. This should allow fewer contrails to form.
The Federal Association of the German Aviation Industry (BDL) criticized the fact that the quotas make both intra-European flights and long-haul flights that start from hubs within the EU more expensive. “This leads to significant distortions of competition between EU and non-EU airlines,” said the BDL.