Airbus and partners test 100% SAF

View from Brussels: Air traffic mismanagement

Image credit: Airbus

Aviation has had a rough ride through the pandemic but as vaccinations continue, how to build the sector back better is firmly on the docket. EU officials have plenty of ideas but getting them all the fly in unison could prove tricky.

Europe’s policy-makers have had a turbulent relationship with the aviation industry. In the early days of the EU, until relatively recently, short-haul flights were seen as an absolute necessity to bring the continent closer together.

Building political consensus for more integration would be easier if politicians in Helsinki did not feel so distant from their counterparts in Lisbon, the logic goes.

But now that concerns over climate change are well and truly in the mainstream, aviation’s integral role has been watered down somewhat. It still drives economic growth and trade but it is no longer the sacred cow it once was.

The EU also does not really know how to regulate the sector. In the last decade, Brussels officials wanted to include international flights in the bloc’s carbon market but were talked out of it, predominantly by the US.

Any talk of slapping taxes on jet fuel - currently exempted under a decades-old agreement - disappears as quickly as it is mentioned. Brussels wants aviation to be cleaner and better but does not really want it to change.

According to a newly released study by the European Commission, there are serious doubts about a new international scheme aimed at offsetting the emissions produced by planes.

The so-called CORSIA initiative, which will eventually force airlines to pay into green schemes to neutralise their planet-warming impact, is entering its pilot phase ahead of a wider roll-out later this decade.

The Commission’s study warns that CORSIA might not actually do its job if it ends up replacing EU regulations and also criticises the quality and cost of the offset schemes currently eligible.

Transport & Environment, a clean mobility NGO, said that “airlines will pay less than a euro to buy carbon offsets that won’t work. The study is a warning to the EU to take back responsibility for addressing pollution on European flights.”

It creates a headache for EU officials, who are still pondering whether to make tweaks to the carbon market. Options include ditching the number of free pollution permits allocated to airlines or even hitting the nuclear button and folding international flights back into the scheme.

With prices per tonne trading at record highs at the moment, the emissions trading scheme is becoming a more powerful tool in the EU’s climate action arsenal, but any big changes come with the risk of intense pushback.

Carbon market rule changes are the stick, but there is also a carrot on offer.

Before the summer, the Commission will unveil its ‘RefuelEU’ scheme, which aims to increase the use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), a cleaner equivalent of kerosene.

Airlines only use SAFs in negligible quantities at the moment, due to higher prices and lack of supply. The plan is to set a target so that demand spikes, supply grows to meet it and costs fall due to economies of scale.

The industry is fully behind that plan, as SAFs can be used in most modern engines and they also come with the potential perk of qualifying for green credits, although the nitty-gritty of how to regulate them is still yet to be fully worked out.

Airbus announced this week that it will trial flights that use 100 per cent SAFs (pictured). The limit is currently 50 per cent and most airlines use only a light blend with kerosene, due to the cost and supply problem.

However, outside trials, planes are unlikely to take off any time soon fully loaded with SAF, so the question is what to do about kerosene, which has a poor climate record. The EU may have a plan for that too, and US President Joe Biden’s new administration is key to it.

Lower-quality fuels contribute to the non-CO2 effect on the climate, which new research by the Commission shows is substantial due to the altitude at which planes fly. Soot particles, nitrogen oxides and sulphur are the main culprits.

“Historically, these non-CO2 impacts haven’t really been taken into account, and maybe we could work with the US administration to encourage them to be taken into account,” said the EU executive’s top aviation official, Damien Meadows.

“If we worked with the United States we could try to raise fuel standards to diminish the amount of soot elements causing non-CO2 impacts,” he told MEPs.

It is a policy that is starting to bear fruit in the shipping sector, where new global rules on sulphur content have forced shippers to invest in new technology to clean up their emissions. A similar deal for planes could find support.

But the EU has to make up its mind about how it wants aviation to look by the end of the decade, as its policymaking - not for the first time - could end up being counterproductive, alienating its allies and failing to meet its objectives.

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