Airline industry charts path to carbon neutrality by 2050

The fuel cell airplane HY4 during its world premiere at the airport in Stuttgart, Germany. [EPA/CHRISTOPH SCHMIDT]

The European airline industry has launched a sustainability plan to achieve carbon neutrality in the aviation sector by 2050, a roadmap they say will align the notoriously carbon-intensive sector, currently suffering a huge pandemic-caused downturn, with EU climate goals.

The plan, unveiled on Thursday (11 February) sets a pathway to reduce CO2 emissions from all flights within and departing from the EU by 45% by 2030, reaching net zero CO2 emissions by 2050.

Flights will not necessarily be entirely carbon free under the plan, rather any CO2 emitted will be removed from the atmosphere through carbon sinks, such as forests, or carbon capture and storage technologies.

Titled “Destination 2050 – A Route to Net Zero European Aviation“, the document is backed by major European flight industry associations, covering airports (ACI EUROPE), airlines (A4E), aerospace and defence (ASD Europe), air traffic control (CANSO), and regional airlines (ERA).

Tanja Grobotek, director of European affairs at CANSO, said the aviation sector groups had joined together “to present a solution to our common challenge – reducing carbon emissions, while still delivering valuable economic and social benefits,” adding that the plan had the ability to make a “meaningful impact” on achieving Europe’s climate goals.

“Our industry wants to be a part of a clean recovery that has a lasting positive impact whilst still providing essential connectivity to Europe’s citizens,” said Montserrat Barriga, director-general of regional airlines group ERA.

Destination 2050 is underpinned by a scientific report written by the Royal Netherlands Aerospace Centre and SEO Amsterdam Economics, which sets out four paths to decarbonising the sector: improvements in aircraft and engine technologies, using sustainable aviation fuels, implementing economic measures, and improving air traffic management.

Rolling out new, clean technology has the potential to cut over a third of current emissions according to the report, particularly the introduction of hydrogen-powered and electric aircraft.

However, by the industry’s admission, hydrogen-powered aircrafts are unlikely to be in operation until 2035, while electric planes are predicted to have severely reduced passenger capacity compared to commercial jetliners currently in operation, at least for the foreseeable future.

To ensure hydrogen-powered aircraft can be certified for operation by 2035, investment in innovation needs to be ramped up, says the industry.

They are calling on governments to reduce investment risks for low-carbon aviation technology through incentives and by offering positive policy frameworks.

“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,” said Thomas Reynaert, managing director at A4E.

Clarity needed on costs, hydrogen

Green NGO Transport & Environment (T&E) broadly welcomed the plan but warned it relies too heavily on the hope that clean aircraft technology will be deployed on time.

“This is a positive announcement, but before governments sign a blank cheque to develop hydrogen planes for long-haul, the sector needs to be much clearer on the costs. There are still uncertainties over when hydrogen will be ready, so there is a risk that huge investments will be wasted,” said Jo Dardenne, aviation manager at T&E.

The green NGO argued that governments and industry should focus on financing and deploying e-kerosene, which can be blended with current fuels without requiring changes to aircrafts’ engines.

E-kerosene is generated by combining hydrogen and carbon dioxide – a potentially green fuel source provided that the hydrogen is created using renewable electricity and the carbon captured from the atmosphere.

Indeed, the Destination 2050 report estimates that sustainable aviation fuels (which includes e-kerosene as well as biofuels) could achieve emissions reductions of 34%. The plan endorses assigning a price to CO2 emissions to help speed up the deployment of low or zero-carbon e-fuels.

Calls to increase the use of sustainable aviation fuels is growing in Europe. On 8 February, ministers from eight European countries called on the European Commission to introduce a “blending mandate”, requiring airlines to use green jet fuel. Doing so, they argued, will increase the supply of sustainable fuels, bringing the currently high price down.

Eight EU countries call for green fuel to be mandatory in European aircraft

Ministers from eight European countries have called on the European Commission to boost the uptake of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) by requiring them to be blended into kerosene, a move they say will drive down emissions in the sector.

T&E also criticised the plan for failing to address the non-CO2 effects of flights, which they say represent two-thirds of the sector’s actual climate impact. This includes pollutants emitted at altitudes difficult for scientists to measure, such as NOx.

The industry plan was launched ahead of the publication of the European Commission’s ReFuelEU proposal, which will set out a regulatory path to ensure the aviation sector cuts emissions in line with the European Green Deal. The proposal is expected to be published in the first quarter of 2021.

Moves to green the aviation industry come amid a severe downturn for the sector. The ongoing pandemic has seen air passenger numbers reach their lowest level since 1995. Around 1.7 billion fewer passengers flew in 2020 compared to 2019.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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