Eight European transport ministers have called for a harmonised, long-term strategy to decarbonising the air transport sector to include ramping up the production and supply of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) through an EU-wide blending mandate. Hosting a high-level virtual conference, the Dutch Minister of Infrastructure and Water Management, Cora van Nieuwenhuizen, said there was a clear goal for aviation to achieve zero-carbon emissions, and the innovation of SAF, in particular synthetic kerosene, would play a crucial role. She said the Dutch ambition was fuel from departing flights would be made up of 14% SAF by 2030 and used the event to showcase a recent flight by KLM from Amsterdam that used 500 litres of synthetic jet fuel produced by Shell from CO2, water and renewable energy, an industry first. EU Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean said synthetic fuels, including hydrogen, would become one of the most important routes to the sector’s decarbonisation and the forthcoming launch of the RefuelEU Aviation initiative would establish a regulatory framework at the EU level that sent a strong policy signal to producers and investors.
European Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans, who has responsibility for the European Green Deal and Climate Action, said aviation presented a particular challenge due a huge increase in carbon emissions over the past decade, which needed to be tackled.
“Now with the pandemic, aviation has been particularly hard hit and a lot of public money has been put into keeping the sector alive,” he told the conference. “I think that was a good choice because the sector is going to be crucial in our recovery and the future structure of our economy – but it has to be a sector with a heavily reduced carbon footprint.
“We will need to look at what will be fuelling future aircraft and that is of extreme importance. I know the industry is on board with this and most of our own [EU] governments are too. With the election of Joe Biden in the US, the international environment is also quickly changing and there is no doubt in my mind they will be looking for a rapid reduction in carbon emissions as well. The traditional argument that we cannot touch aviation because it is an international sector becomes moot if we all start moving in the same direction.”
He called for European investment support of new technologies that would enable lower-cost production of sustainable fuels, including synthetic kerosene and clean hydrogen.
“What instruments do we have to influence this?” he said. “From my perspective, the EU ETS is the best system. It puts a price on carbon and allows us to generate revenue that can be used to be invested to create sustainable transport. Talking to my counterparts in America and China, forms of ETS are going to be cornerstones of their approach to decarbonising their economies as well. At the moment, it’s a piecemeal approach but if we do it at scale then we create a level playing field and then the risk of putting the European airline industry at a disadvantage diminishes.
“As well as carbon pricing and RefuelEU Aviation, we will have to look at how we integrate other transport systems into a sustainable solution. It is important to have a fundamental conversation about the future of this industry. It is not just about changing the energy used for air transportation but it’s also about the future role of the sector. Funding the recovery by putting the burden on our children and grandchildren will only work if we can show a better and more sustainable economy. There shouldn’t though be an antagonism between reaching climate neutrality and having a vibrant airline industry that responds to the transportation needs of our citizens and economy.”
The unprecedented Covid crisis had brought European air traffic back to 1995 levels, said Vălean, who expects recovery to fully return after five years and reach 14.4 million flights per year by 2035.
“However, it doesn’t make sense to go from catastrophic losses to an increased environmental impact. Along with an increase in flights, we have to see a decrease in emissions. It is not an easy task but neither is it an impossible one because we now have the technologies, we have a plan and for the first time, we have the commitment of the entire aviation industry to change. Ten years ago, even five years ago, it would have been impossible to sit all the actors at the same table and to see them sharing the same goals and vision as we are seeing today.”
She said sustainable fuels had a major role to play but the estimated share of SAF in the EU today was only around 0.05% of total jet fuel consumption.
“We need to scale up production capacity and make them widely available on the market,” she said. “This will require both cooperation and a sustainable policy framework, and, of course, an acceptable business case. In terms of cooperation, we plan to involve every interested party – airlines, producers, researchers, airports, public authorities, civil society and others – to establish a renewable and low-carbon value alliance. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. We need to know with precision, which are our weakest links and create the right conditions to strengthen the entire chain.”
Vălean said a consequence of the RefuelEU Aviation initiative would be to attract major investment in European SAF production capacity that would lead to increasing uptake.
“We will also make sure our proposal maintains and guarantees a strong level playing field for industry in the EU,” she added. “The transition to sustainable fuels must be driven and endorsed collectively by the aviation industry community, and costs for clean fuels must be shared as fairly as possible.
“As aviation is global by nature, we will accelerate a discussion in global forums like ICAO and we must continue to convince our third country aviation partners that sustainable alternative fuels are the right choice to ensure that the growing aviation sector has a sustainable future.”
Andreas Scheuer, Germany’s transport minister, agreed measures needed to be coordinated at an international level and that the current crisis offered chances for the sustainable development of aviation. As air transport would continue to rely on liquid fuels for the foreseeable future, the use of SAF was key to contributing to environmental and climate protection in aviation, he said.
“From the different types of sustainable fuels, Germany is especially focusing on synthetic e-fuels produced from renewable electricity, CO2 and water, known as power-to-liquid (PtL) kerosene,” he said. “In our view, PtL has the highest potential to contribute the sustainable development of aviation and our climate goals.”
Despite the promise of PtL fuels, he conceded, there was no business case as yet due to high production costs, a lack of supply and demand, and current limitations of renewable electricity supplies. To support market development, he said Germany had set up a funding regime that would provide €1.5 billion ($1.8bn) over the next four years, with a special allocation for aviation PtL fuels. This would be complemented, subject to the recovery of the aviation sector from the crisis, by a national blending quota of 0.5% PtL starting from 2026, increasing up to 2% by 2030, based on sales of jet kerosene in Germany.
“However, market distortion has to be considered and addressed. We therefore advocate for a common European and international approach regarding regulatory measures and quotas,” he said. “In this context, we support RefuelEU Aviation to boost the supply and demand for SAF and PtL. This regulation, in our view, should include a separate requirement for PtL kerosene.”
He reported the government and industry stakeholders were currently developing a PtL roadmap for aviation, which would be published shortly in German and English.
French transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said in a keynote address that while synthetic fuels were currently expensive, the economics would improve through innovation and scalability. Sustainable aviation fuels are already available and would increase in the coming years, while hydrogen was expected in 2035, he added.
“We must develop all these technologies and keep in mind the timeframe is different for each of them,” he said. “We need to integrate all certified and available SAF pathways despite their current levels of production maturities. The use of SAF should be an obligation to airlines and increase with progressive phasing and harmonised at the EU level.”
To send a signal to the market, he suggested a European mandatory target of 5% SAF by 2030, with obligations that feedstocks are produced in the EU and came with high standards of sustainability. “We should avoid relying on imports of feedstocks from outside the EU. It’s a matter of improving our energy independence and also the externalities associated with the transport of non-local feedstock.
“In France, we have just published a national roadmap that sets a target of 1% incorporation by 2022, based on an incentive through a tax exemption on jet supplies. We are supporting innovative projects and launched a call for expressions of interest last year. Today, there are around 15 projects, bringing together aircraft companies, airlines, industrials and waste management specialists. The projects are at different stages, some in a pilot phase, some need further studies, but things are going well at the moment and we can see a very good momentum in France.”
Sweden’s Minister of Infrastructure, Tomas Eneroth, said blending mandates should be coordinated as a joint EU initiative but that it was up to individual Member States to decide the measures to use in order to reach a minimum share. It was also important that any EU legislation proposal should support ambitious States that were already moving ahead with SAF initiatives. Sweden, he said, was intending this summer to introduce an obligation based on GHG emission reductions.
“The purpose of opting for a reduction obligation is that compared with a blending obligation, it favours fuels with lower lifecycle emissions,” he said, adding that Sweden would welcome a revision of the EU energy taxation directive to allow for Member States to tax fossil jet fuel used in international aviation.
“In the short term, we are open to bilateral agreements on taxation. I also hope that there will be a broader discussion at ICAO on international regulation. It is of the utmost importance we continue discussions on work on sustainable aviation at the European level. It is time for the EU to take the next step and we are fully committed to making aviation more sustainable, resilient and future-proof.”
Timo Harakka, Minister of Transport for Finland, said the EU had to drive ambitious climate goals at a global level. “The next ICAO Assembly in 2022 will show whether the aviation community is ready for concrete measures. It will no doubt be challenging to agree on a common goal and necessary measures. However, there is no time to postpone the inevitable. Whether the measures are national, EU-wide or global, sustainable aviation fuels are at the very centre of them.
“I’m certain e-fuels will play a major role in decarbonising aviation. We’re not there yet but there are some promising initiatives in Europe, including in Finland. It is very important that as we move to maximum usage of e-fuels in the future, we also maximise the use of the current available measures. With swift and ambitious action, the aviation sector could make a real difference in achieving EU 2030 climate goals and we can drive the change in the global area.”
Latvia’s Minister for Transport, Tālis Linkaits, said there were numerous challenges ahead, including the SAF price gap, and especially for small and distant Member States like Latvia. He also advocated that airlines should not be burdened with SAF quota demands.
“Nevertheless, I would like to express support for the pioneering efforts in this field and with mutual cooperation, we can help each other to initiate the ramp up,” he said.
Eight EU States – France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – issued a joint statement during the conference:
“We therefore support the aim of the European Commission to boost the supply and demand for SAF in the EU so as to create favourable conditions in order to ramp up the production and deployment of SAF, based on robust sustainability criteria. The potential of synthetic aviation fuels, in addition to advanced sustainable biofuels, is clear. The challenge is to make use of the current momentum by providing for a clear long-term perspective so as to contribute to a scalable SAF marketplace. A European blending mandate can achieve this.
“So we call upon the European Commission to further stimulate and incentivise the uptake of SAF, including synthetic fuels, through funding programmes under the existing financial framework and we welcome the RefuelEU Aviation initiative as a starting point for further EU coordination so as to ensure an integral and effective long-term agenda on sustainable aviation.”
The 500 litres of synthetic kerosene showcased during the conference was produced by Shell at its research centre in Amsterdam from CO2, water and renewable energy from local sun and wind sources. It was used on a KLM flight between Amsterdam and Madrid.
“This promising innovation will be of great importance in the coming decades to reduce CO2 emissions from aviation,” commented Cora van Nieuwenhuizen. “It is great that in the Netherlands, we were the first to show that this is possible – a big compliment for all involved. I hope that in these turbulent times for aviation, this will inspire people in the sector to continue on this course.”
Photo: Synthetic fuel blend loaded onto KLM flight