Climate impact of flying could be two thirds higher than thought

Non-CO2 effects include the release of soot and harmful gases, including sulphur and nitrogen oxide, as well as water vapour from jet engines. [grandbrothers / Shutterstock.com]

The EU’s proposed green aviation law overlooks the true climate cost of flying, with the non-CO2 effects of air travel producing two to four times the impact of carbon emissions, a Green MEP has said.

Ciarán Cuffe, a Green MEP who is shadow rapporteur for the ReFuelEU Aviation file in the European Parliament’s transport committee, has called for the EU’s clean aviation fuels law to be amended to include so-called non-CO2 effects.

This includes the release of soot and harmful gases, including sulphur and nitrogen oxide, as well as water vapour, from jet engines.

At high altitudes, these emissions can cause the formation of contrails, which have a net warming effect much larger than CO2, according to a 2020 EU study.

The emissions can also damage human health, which is of particular concern to those living in the vicinity of airports.

“We know that the non CO2 effects of aviation represent two thirds of the sector’s overall climate impact, but it remains unregulated,” said Cuffe.

“It’s not credible to delay by another decade and rely solely on voluntary industry efforts. This hasn’t worked up until now, and it won’t work in the future,” he added.

The Irish MEP has tabled an amendment mandating a progressive reduction of the aromatic and sulphur content of aviation fuels, two elements responsible for much of the non-CO2 pollution released by planes.

Under Cuffe’s amendment, aromatics would be capped at 8% of kerosene by 1 June 2023, down from the standard of roughly 20% at present.

Aircraft function impacted

Despite the climate and health impacts, a complete removal of all aromatic content in fuel is not immediately possible, as aromatics are needed to ensure planes function optimally.

“Aromatics are added to the fuel to keep the seals in the aircraft working. And when you remove them, then you get things happening like seals starting to leak, tanks leaking, the pumps becoming unreliable,” explained Ron van Manen, head of strategic development with the Clean Aviation Joint Undertaking, an EU and industry-backed programme to accelerate green aircraft innovation.

“There are a number of NGOs who are saying – and they have a very valid point – we can remove the aromatics from fossil fuel much sooner. The issue is, if you took them out tomorrow, the aircraft would have a problem.”

Adapting the current fleet to run without aromatics would require a costly retrofitting, which airlines are unlikely to adopt in the short term. Refuelling stations would also need to be upgraded to handle aromatic-free fuels.

“That timeline to modify the fleet to be able to fly on fuels without aromatics is probably about a decade, unless you make it mandatory,” said van Manen.

This update will eventually become inevitable, however, as Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs), such as second-generation biofuels and electro-fuels, are aromatic free. Under EU proposals, at least 63% of fuel uplifted by planes at EU airports will be SAFs by 2050.

Political champions

Cuffe is not the only MEP to champion the inclusion of non-CO2 effects in the ReFuelEU Aviation proposal.

Nicolás González Casares, a centre-left MEP directing the file in the European Parliament’s environment committee, has called for a European Commission report on “optimising the aromatic content of aviation fuel” to be prepared by 2030.

German MEP Jutta Paulus, a Green lawmaker in charge of preparing the European Parliament’s industry committee opinion on ReFuelEU Aviation, has also pushed for greatly reduced levels of aromatics and sulphur in kerosene.

Asking fuel suppliers to alter the composition of kerosene may push up prices, but the cost impact will be limited, according to Paulus.

“It’s not a technological problem, you can easily lower the sulphur and the aromatic content of fuels. It does cost money; you will have a 5% or 10% surcharge on aviation fuel. But it’s not tripling the price of the fuel,” Paulus told EURACTIV in a February interview.

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It is expected that a reference to non-CO2 effects will be included in the Parliament’s amended ReFuelEU Aviation file, which is being shepherded by Søren Gade, a centrist lawmaker from Denmark.

The topic is likely to face greater opposition from EU member states, though it is not without advocates among the EU Council of Ministers – most prominently the Netherlands.

In a document seen by EURACTIV, the Dutch government encouraged the French presidency of the Council to add a new clause obliging the European Commission to explore means to mitigate aviation’s non-CO2 climate impact, with the findings presented in a report by the end of 2023.

‘Last chance’

The increased focus on non-CO2 effects by lawmakers was welcomed by the clean mobility NGO Transport & Environment, which has strongly campaigned to get the issue on the legislative agenda.

“Now is our last chance to correct a major problem of the Fit for 55 package: the absence of aviation non-CO2 mitigation,” Matteo Mirolo, aviation policy officer with T&E, told EURACTIV.

In addition to a reduction of the aromatic and sulphur content of jet fuel, T&E are calling for the establishment of a monitoring system to quantify non-CO2 effects under the EU’s carbon market.

“At a time when bold, ambitious climate action is needed, the EU cannot accept that two thirds of aviation’s climate impact continues to fly under the legislative radar,” T&E wrote in a recent briefing on the subject.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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