EU aviation blending mandate needed to green flights, says MEP

Elsi Katainen MEP [Photo: EP]

This article is part of our special report Decarbonising air travel.

Futuristic flight technologies like battery-power and hydrogen are on the radar but sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) are an already-available option that should be utilised more, MEP Elsi Katainen told EURACTIV.

Elsi Katainen is a Finnish MEP with the Renew Europe group. She is a member of the European Parliament’s transport committee and vice-chair of its agriculture committee.

She spoke to EURACTIV’s Sam Morgan.

Does aviation need to be decarbonised urgently or do you think there are other parts of the economy that need attention more pressingly?

To reach the EU’s ambitious climate targets and make the economy sustainable we need to reduce emissions in all sectors, from energy to agriculture and transport. Decarbonising our transport sector in a fair way is no doubt one of the trickiest tasks. It is clear that we need a broad approach looking at every transport mode, including aviation, which has been, despite the technological progress, one of the faster-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions before the pandemic. However, I would not prioritise one part over another, we need to act simultaneously in all sectors of our economy. The horizontal approach on climate action taken in the Green Deal is in this regard very welcomed.

How can the EU help increase the uptake and use of SAFs?

The EU has to create a stable policy framework that creates certainty for companies to invest. I believe an EU-level blending mandate would be an effective tool in this respect. Secondly, we need a wide perspective on sustainable feedstock defined in the Renewable Energy Directive (RED II).

Are you encouraged by what is allocated under the next EU budget? Or is there cause for concern? R&D funding has, for example, suffered.

The multiannual financial framework negotiations have been more difficult than usual. In the European Parliament, we have demanded a more ambitious EU budget for innovation and research, and I am disappointed to see that EU leaders did not deliver on this during the summer. There are many important research challenges related to aviation that we need to tap into, from sustainable fuels and fuel efficiency to electrification and digitalisation. 

What do you expect from the Commission? There hasn’t been much in terms of detail on this issue as part of the Green Deal as of yet. Would some sort of ‘aviation package’ be a good idea?

We are expecting a proposal on SAFs, the so-called “ReFuelEU Aviation”, to come out from the Commission early next year. In addition, the Commission recently introduced an upgrade on the European Single Sky regulation (SES 2+) which can help cut emissions in aviation by creating shorter and more efficient flying paths in Europe. I like the idea of a package in a sense that it is very important that we look at all the different proposals affecting the aviation sector as a whole, so that we have a clear picture on what are the effects economically, socially and environmentally.

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What can aviation learn from road transport’s relationship with biofuels over the last few decades, which – at European level at least – was a bit controversial and divisive?

Member states have been successful in driving the scale up of biofuel use in road transport thanks to regulatory measures that have created the growing market for biofuels, successfully leading to investments in European biofuel production. This can be achieved in aviation as well with the help of a blending obligation. The focus should be on ensuring broad acceptance of sustainable raw materials to achieve full the potential of SAFs, including wastes and residues and novel vegetable oils, such as cover crops and vegetable oils growing on degraded land. These do not involve such land use change risks that have created controversies in the past with biofuels.    

Given how the pandemic has slashed air travel demand, is there somewhat of an opportunity now for airlines to ‘build back better’ and invest in SAFs or is this too delicate a time for that?

I believe the time is opportune to build a credible roadmap for greener aviation. An EU-wide mandate would help to reduce the negative competitive effects of growing SAF use. Also the impact on flight ticket prices is modest when the cost of SAF use is based on the entire jet fuel use in Europe. In addition, we would have enough SAFs for greater shares from the beginning as the total use of kerosene will probably be still some years lower than expected. 

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Can Europe build a well-functioning domestic SAF value chain or will it have to rely on external suppliers?

I think Europe is well positioned to build working SAF supply chains with good availability of raw materials and leading companies in the biofuels market. There are several investment projects already in the pipeline from various players, such as Neste, Preem, St1, Total and UPM to build production capacity in Europe.  

How are SAFs approached in Finland? Are there support measures in place and are there any promising trends?

The Finnish government is aiming to introduce a blending mandate which would increase the share of SAFs to 30% by 2030. This is one of the most ambitious targets in the EU and in line with Finland’s target of climate neutrality by 2035.

Our Nordic friends are also forerunners. For instance, Norway already set a blending mandate earlier this year. In addition, Sweden recently announced that it would introduce a greenhouse gas reduction mandate for aviation fuel sold in Sweden starting next year.

Do you see SAFs as a stepping stone towards more advanced fuels like synthetic kerosene or even a radical change like hydrogen power (as recently announced by Airbus)?

Hydrogen-powered aircraft are not expected to play a significant role in commercial aviation in the next decades, so indeed we have to make use of the already available means to get decarbonisation of aviation moving.

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