24 September 2023

GreenAir News

Reporting on aviation and the environment

European aviation sector seeks partnership with government as it plots a pathway to net zero emissions by 2050

The European aviation industry has unveiled a pathway to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 through improvements in aircraft and engine technologies, the use of sustainable aviation fuels, improvements in air traffic management and implementing economic measures. The ambition is based on a commissioned report, Destination 2050, that assumes an impact on demand for flying as a result of the measures but with European air passenger numbers still projected to grow by 1.4% per year on average between 2018 and 2050. The report expects pre-Covid 2019 to have been the peak year for European aviation carbon emissions, which totalled around 183 million tonnes. Although the impact of new aircraft technologies, such as hydrogen power, and sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) will not materialise until after 2030, the report expects emissions from intra-European flights will be reduced to 55% of 1990 levels by 2030 and so contribute to the goals of the European Green Deal, mainly as a result of economic measures. Post-2030, hydrogen-powered aircraft will be the main contributor to the sector’s emissions reduction on intra-European routes, backed up by drop-in SAF used on extra-European flights.

Making European aviation net-zero by 2050 a reality will require quick, decisive joint actions by governments and industry, said industry leaders launching the report. Industry will need to continue to substantially invest in decarbonisation and innovation, and make the necessary operational transitions, while governments will need to ensure a level playing field and facilitate the transition through incentives and by reducing investment risks with consistent and stable policy frameworks, they said.

The Destination 2050 initiative is led by the five European associations representing airlines (A4E and ERA), airports (ACI Europe), manufacturers (ASD Europe) and air traffic management (CANSO). The report was compiled by the Royal Netherlands Aerospace Centre (NLR) and SEO Amsterdam Economics.

A reliance on economic measures to reduce emissions on intra-EU+ (EU, UK and EFTA) flights is extensive in the period up to 2030, says the report, but is significantly reduced towards 2050 as time is required before the most substantial emission reductions measures in the form of new technology and sustainable aviation fuels enter the market, but these will need policy support, it finds.

“Robust economic measures and much needed government and regulatory support in the short term will be necessary to bridge the gap until innovation, technology and SAF become more widely available to help our industry reach its environmental targets,” said European Regions Airline Association (ERA) Director General Montserrat Barriga.

Economic measures assign a price to CO2 emissions, ensuring airlines take climate costs into account in their business decisions, with the EU ETS the mechanism applying to intra-EEA flights, which will be complemented by the ICAO CORSIA scheme for international flights. The report assesses compliance costs to European airlines would likely amount to around €4.1 billion by 2030 to offset 57 MtCO2 – calculated at €60 per tonne CO2. This would fall to €3.6 billion by 2050 to offset 27 MtCO2, although the carbon price could rise to €165/tonneCO2 as allowances and carbon credits become increasingly scarce. Direct air capture is seen as an important enabling technology for deployment in the short to medium term in order to create high quality allowances and credits.

Economic measures are expected to remove only 1% of CO2 emissions from intra-EU+ aviation after 2030 as new technology – principally from hydrogen and SAF – becomes widely available. Contrary to that for intra-EU+ flights, the reliance on economic measures increases slightly after 2030 for departing flights from Europe.

The level of SAF uptake is still relatively limited in 2030, predicts the report, achieving a saving of 7 MtCO2, or contributing to around 3% of total reduction measures. However, it points out, those efforts will be needed so as to yield much higher benefits of SAF beyond 2030 as production capacity will be increased and other production processes reach maturity. By 2050, SAF could contribute around 34% of aviation CO2 reduction measures, with a higher proportion from non-EU+ flights as hydrogen power would play a bigger role in intra-EU+ aviation. SAF volume is forecast by the report to increase from 3 Mt (6% of total kerosene volume) in 2030 to 32 Mt (83% of total kerosene volume) by 2050. Almost 90% of all energy used in aircraft operations in 2050 is expected to come from a renewable source.

An array of improvements in ATM and aircraft operations, including the Single European Sky (SES), could yield a 5 to 6% system-level CO2 emissions reduction in 2030 and 2050, with most of these improvements being realised by 2035. To enjoy the full benefits of the SES, it is imperative to move more towards a network-centric and digital ATM system and requires political willingness, says the report.

To reach European aviation net zero emissions, it estimates a total saving of 250 MtCO2 in 2050 (from a 2018 base year) could result from the effect of the following sustainability measures:

  • 111 MtCO2 through improvements in aircraft and engine technology (60 MtCO2 by hydrogen-powered aircraft on intra-European routes and 51 MtCO2 by kerosene powered or hybrid/electric aircraft);
  • 18 MtCO2 through improvements in ATM and aircraft operations;
  • 99 MtCO2 through using drop-in SAF; and
  • 22 MtCO2 through economic measures (carbon removal projects only).

As well as collaboration between stakeholders and setting a coherent long-term policy framework, the authors of the report recommend the EU aviation industry and government should work towards ensuring a global commitment to a net-zero future for aviation that aligns with the Paris Agreement and the 1.5 degree IPCC scenario.

“The current ICAO work on defining a global long-term aspirational goal … is a key opportunity to realising this ambition. If a global net-zero target cannot be agreed upon, global and European goals should at least be brought closer together,” they say.

Commenting on the report and the net-zero goal, Airlines for Europe (A4E) Managing Director Thomas Reynaert said: “This long-planned vision and roadmap for the future of European aviation underlines our sector’s commitment and determination to play our part in tackling climate change despite the current crisis. A robust regulatory framework will be paramount in achieving not only an environmentally sustainable future, but also a financially resilient and competitive European aviation industry as a whole. We remain committed to work with policymakers to take aviation forward jointly for the next generation of travellers.”

Added Olivier Jankovec, Director General at airports body ACI Europe: “The decisive and tangible actions set out in this roadmap are unprecedented. Here we have an entire sector not just committing to decarbonisation but actually charting the path to make it happen and effectively contribute to the EU’s climate objectives and the Paris Agreement. But whilst we embrace our responsibilities, it is clear that we cannot do this alone. It takes two to tango. Now we need the EU to deliver the policy and regulatory framework that will enable us to deliver net-zero European aviation by 2050. We therefore urge institutional stakeholders to respond to our call and join the EU Pact for Sustainable Aviation we tabled last November.”

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