Opinion: Europe Moves One Step Closer To Green Flight

Sustainable aviation fuel aircraft
Credit: AVPics/Alamy Stock Photo

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

The problem is growing and, as every year passes we will need even more ambitious measures to tackle it. Before 2030, technological solutions will not be ready at scale, so demand management will be 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-19 levels in Europe can cut CO2 emissions by as much as 32.6 metric tons by 2030. This is equivalent to taking 16 million polluting cars off the road.

Demand management is the most effective means of reducing emissions this decade. But if regulators adopt ambitious mitigation policies now, they could be replaced in time by alternative fuel and zero-emission aircraft.

The European Parliament’s landmark vote on July 7 showed that legislators are on track to make this happen. Lawmakers voted on a crucial piece of legislation on sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) called ReFuelEU. The initiative aims to boost supply and demand for green jet fuel 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 aircraft. The proposal excluded crop-based biofuels, as they can have disastrous impacts on our climate and biodiversity. Instead, it prioritized advanced biofuels (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 byproducts (palm fatty-acid distillates or PFAD) and intermediate crops—as well as animal crops in the definition. Why was such a proposal made in the first place? Airlines can only comply with high SAF mandates and keep ticket prices reasonable for customers if the feedstocks are widely available—in a word, cheap.

What could have been a momentous proposal for European aviation had been amended in a way that would have caused more harm than good, with fuel linked to deforestation, loss of biodiversity and increasing food prices. PFADs, for example, are 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 oil, which has disastrous effects on global land use change and emissions.

In an unprecedented move, airlines and environmental groups with EasyJet’s support, wrote to members of the European Parliament ahead of the vote to draw attention to the issues with palm oil byproducts and biofuels. The aviation industry’s reputation was on the line, with fake green solutions potentially fueling European flights.

All eyes were on the vote, but the outcome was clear: Green means green. The European Parliament barred from ReFuelEU the use of intermediate crops and PFADs. Edible animal fats did stay, however, but the worst of the damage was averted. And finally, the parliament increased ambitions to use synthetic fuels, which are the only fuels that can be scaled up sustainably to reduce aviation’s climate impact.

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

But the vote was about more than just feedstocks. Lawmakers gave the green light to SAF as one of the main tools to decarbonize 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, a market in which Europe is already a leader.

The last legislative hurdle will come in September, when the three main European institutions—the parliament, council and commission—will debate the final proposal. Decision-makers must keep the momentum going by excluding the last remaining problematic biofuel feedstock—edible animal fats—from Europe’s green fuel mandate.

Matteo Mirolo is an expert on sustainable aviation fuel at Transport & Environment, and he leads policy work on clean fuels at the EU and national level.

The views expressed are not necessarily shared by Aviation Week.