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What would it take to make aviation green in the EU?

Ella Joyner in Strasbourg
September 13, 2023

Most Europeans have heard of "flight shaming," and now the EU hopes green jet fuel will be the answer to aviation emissions. The bloc has set ambitious production targets, but not everyone is sold.

Climate activists on bikes protest against environmental pollution from aviation at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport
Climate activists frequently hit out at the aviation sector for inaction in cutting emissionsImage: Piroschka van de Wouw/REUTERS

The peak vacation season of July and August is traditionally a chance for people in Europe to get away from it all. But with more frequent, intense wildfires and blistering heatwaves shaping summer in southern Europe, the climate crisis is getting pretty hard to ignore — even on the beach.

More and more people are thinking about the environmental impact of travel, particularly the real cost of a budget airline ticket.

With the dream of next-generation battery or liquid-hydrogen planes still likely decades away — at least for widespread commercial use — many governments are focussing for now on developing less environmentally harmful fuel to use in existing aircraft as a means of cleaning up a notoriously polluting sector.

Rolls-Royce "Spirit of Innovation" all-electric plane
Electric planes like this one made by Rolls Royce may look cool, but they are not ready to replace commercial fleetsImage: Cover-Images/imago images

EU: 70% sustainable aviation fuel by 2050

The European Union has set its eye on boosting the production of sustainable aviation fuel, currently much more expensive than conventional fossil kerosene and very short in supply.

On Wednesday, the European Parliament voted in favor of a 70% target for the share of so-called green aviation fuel by 2050 at EU airports. The rules increase the green aviation fuel requirements to at least 2% starting from 2025, then rising to 6% in 2030 and 20% in 2035 and increasing gradually to 70% in 2050. Less than 1% of aviation fuel is currently from sustainable sources.

The EU lawmaker leading negotiations, centrist Spanish politician Jose Ramon Bauza Diaz, called it a potential "revolution" and a "tremendous step towards decarbonization of the aviation sector" at a press conference in the French city of Strasbourg on Tuesday.

The basic deal was signed off in April by negotiators representing the European Commission, the EU legislature and the 27 member states.

What is green aviation fuel and how green is it really?

The changes oblige aviation fuel producers — major fossil fuel companies like Shell, Total and others —  to change the fuel they supply to EU airports or potentially risk penalties. The rules also would require flights taking off in the EU not to carry more fuel than needed to prevent them from stocking up in cheaper markets with laxer rules and the additional emissions of flying with higher fuel weights.

Of the final, mid-century 70% target, half should be biofuels, for example from used cooking oil or farming and forestry waste, Camille Mutrelle of Brussels-based advocacy group Transport & Environment explained. The remainder would be synthetic fuels, which are produced by harnessing renewable energy in liquid form, she told DW.

In reality, neither of these is straightforward in terms of minimizing climate harm, Mutrelle added. Biofuels are associated with massive land use if not collected from waste products and the production of synthetic fuels is currently extremely energy intensive.

"The amount of energy you can use is enormous," she said. "That raises a lot of questions when it comes to how the renewable energy that is available will have to be distributed between sectors and what share aviation gets."

E-fuels made by Interatec in Germany
Experts question whether e-fuel production will develop fast enough to meet climate goalsImage: Marijan Murat/dpa/picture alliance

With many industries vying for limited sources of cleaner energy to keep their businesses running in line with ever tighter EU laws, the question is whether there will be enough to go around — particularly for power-hungry endeavors like e-kerosene to fuel planes.

While the automotive industry is betting heavily on electric vehicles, the maritime shipping sector may also turn to sustainable fuel in the future.

Nonetheless, this legislation — first proposed by the European Commission in 2021 as part of its plan to make the EU "climate neutral" by the middle of the century, necessitating a 90%-reduction in transport emissions, among a raft of other measures — is an important step, according to Mutrelle, who called it "a great opportunity for aviation to decarbonize."

Where's it going to come from?

For the Transport & Environment advocacy group, the bigger problem is whether enough sustainable fuel, particularly biofuel, can be produced. "It seems, at least to us, extremely unrealistic to believe that 35% of the fuel uplifted in 2050 will be derived from biomass," Mutrelle said.

At present, the production of sustainable aviation fuels is minimal. In Europe, projects are concentrated in France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the United Kingdom.

"There are a lot of projects on the table, but none of them is a done deal," Mutrelle said, adding that the new legislation could help set the tone and encourage the sector's development.

However, imposing targets isn't the same as offering production incentives.

"A true sustainable aviation fuel industrial policy is missing in Europe," she stressed, comparing the situation to the United States, where tax incentives were offered under the Inflation Reduction Act investment spree.

Even if it works, will it be enough?

Although aviation is responsible for about 2% of the worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, the European Commission reported if global aviation emissions were a country, it would rank in the top 10 emitters. It is also fast-growing, having doubled greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2017. Aviation emissions have increased by an average of 5% year-on-year between 2013 and 2019, the Commission said. 

Are new green fuels the cleaner future of flying?

Two years ago, the International Air Transport Association, a trade body representing the world's airlines, made synthetic fuels 65% of its plan to go "net zero" by 2050, along with offsets (19%), while still continuing growth.

The number of commercial flights could increase by as much as 42% by 2040 compared to 2017, according to figures cited by the European Commission.

Stay Grounded, which advocated for reshaping tax and subsidy structures that benefit airline companies, told DW that focusing on such alternative fuels wouldn't help solve the climate crisis.

"The new EU legislation drawing a pathway to substitute 70% of aviation fuels by 2050 by so-called 'green' fuels is no more than greenwashing, to guarantee that aviation continues growing," campaigner Ines Teles told DW in a written statement. "It is absolutely unclear, where the massive amount of biomass (for agrofuels) and renewable energy (for e-fuels) should come from that would be needed to meet those targets."

"The only way to reduce aviation emissions is to reduce flights, and to achieve that we need effective regulations such as progressive taxes and limits," Teles stressed.

This article, originally published on September 12, was updated on September 13 to reflect the outcome of the vote.

Edited by: Sean Sinico