This article is part of our special report Aviation’s green flight-path in focus.
Air travel is on the cusp of what could be a green revolution, as pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and new initiatives aimed at reducing clean power costs begin to capture attention.
Aviation accounts for just under 4% of the EU’s total CO2 emissions and, before the coronavirus pandemic decimated demand, passenger numbers and pollution were expected to grow consistently under a business-as-usual scenario.
The industry expects to mount a recovery once the virus is easier to manage via a mass rollout of effective vaccinations, although the timeframe is still unclear. Some analysts predict it will take two to three years for numbers to recover, while others are more pessimistic.
Cutting emissions will have to be a part of that rally, as governments start to crack down harder on polluters with broad environmental policies, such as the EU’s Green Deal. There are already signs that it is starting to affect how aviation does business.
Filip Cornelis, head of aviation at the European Commission’s mobility directorate, pointed out at a virtual event on 2 December that transport as a whole will have to cut emissions by at least 90% in order for the EU to hit its 2050 carbon-neutrality target.
“We should use the recovery as an opportunity for aviation to put itself on a new path and accelerate its decarbonisation. I believe the industry is supporting that approach,” the DG MOVE official insisted.
International aviation has already pledged to offset all future growth as part of a UN-led scheme, which will see airlines paying into certified renewable energy and afforestation projects. However, the so-called CORSIA system does not cap emissions.
That is why more widespread use of greener sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) – produced using waste streams or renewable energy – and an eventual rethink of how aircraft are actually powered are now realistic options for the industry.
Cornelis also cited air traffic management reform, under the Single European Sky initiative, research and development into new propulsion systems, led by the Clean Sky Joint Undertaking, and the upcoming ‘RefuelEU’ initiative on SAFs.
That proposal is supposed to be released by the Commission in the first quarter of 2021.
Thorsten Lange, head of renewable aviation at Finnish refiner Neste, insisted that net-zero emission goals explicitly entail “a radical change across the entire economy and doing away with fossil fuels and other sources of emissions wherever possible”.
Lange said the EU’s 2050 target means that for every tonne of CO2 emitted, the same amount will have to be removed. This is where SAFs can make an impact, he added, as it largely locks in carbon that has already been emitted and also slashes non-CO2 pollution.
SAFs can reduce emissions by over 80% compared to normal jet-fuel and refiners like Neste are investing huge sums in trying to increase that number and broaden the types of waste streams that can be used.
Chemically-identical to kerosene, it can be used in existing engines and current standards permit a 50% blend, which Boeing recently demonstrated. Engine-maker Rolls-Royce in November started testing a 100% blend.
Cornelis added that ‘RefuelEU’ will aim to ramp up the production and use of SAFs but also make progress in scaling up power-to-liquids technology, which can be used to convert surplus renewable energy and CO2 into synthetic kerosene.
“This is an important dimension of the initiative as all of our projections show us that we will need a lot of synthetic fuels, as the biofuels side of things will reach a limit,” the official explained, adding that providing investment security will be a crucial part of the process.
Scandinavian Airlines executive Lars Andersen-Resare explained how flygskam-afflicted passengers can already contribute by opting to purchase SAF blocks when they buy tickets, which helps add to demand.
RefuelEU might set an EU-wide blending mandate for SAFs, which would oblige airlines to use a certain percentage of the fuels in every flight. Norway already sets such a rule, while Finland and Sweden, a major part of SAS’s network, are on the cusp of setting their own criteria.
“There are still some topics that need to be addressed such as who will actually get the emissions reduction [credit] and we are a little worried that it might be someone other than aviation,” Andersen-Resare warned.
He also cited the development of electric-battery technology, as well as the airline’s involvement with Airbus in its new hydrogen-power development project, as important milestones in aviation’s green flightpath.
Europe’s premier aerospace firm recently said it hopes to put a commercial airliner fuelled by zero-emission hydrogen into service by 2035, while electric aircraft are gradually increasing their range and receiving regulator approval.