How to integrate the air transport sector in a decarbonised society?

By Filip Cornelis, Director for Aviation, European Commission, (pictured)
Spring 2022

Filip Cornelis, Director for Aviation, European CommissionAir transport plays a vital role in our economy and daily lives, notably for the millions of us who live or come from islands and peripheral regions and states. It connects citizens with their families and their friends, creates jobs or business opportunities, and provides essential links for the cohesion of cities and regions that are difficult to access.

Clean mobility solutions are emerging in other transport modes like the road sector (electric cars are steadily becoming part of our daily lives), but low carbon air travel is not there yet. The sector is particularly difficult to decarbonise, due to its heavy reliance on fossil liquid energy, which is the only one for the time being able to ensure the energy density requested to lift and fly commercial planes. Aviation still represents around 3% of our economy's carbon footprint. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, our society took the full measure of the importance of aviation for the circulation of people and goods. At the same time, this period coincided with intense work at policy and industry level to make air travel restart in a more sustainable way. I am optimistic when I see the latest commitments of the European and global aviation industries to reduce significantly the carbon footprint of air travel1. We know that concrete solutions are coming soon: more direct flights, sustainable aviation fuels instead of fossil energy, more fuel-efficient aircraft or zero emission aircraft. I am convinced that the future of air mobility is sustainable. The key is to combine industry action and bold, efficient policies. Let me explain how I see the latter.

In 2020, the Commission adopted its Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy. This ambitious roadmap set the course of policy action to implement the European Green Deal, and comply with the EU's climate objectives of reducing emissions by 55% by 2030 and becoming carbon neutral by 2050. To decarbonise aviation, the strategy announced increased action, notably in the areas of air traffic management, carbon pricing measures, global market based mechanisms, funding of research and deployment of green projects, and boosting sustainable aviation fuels. In July 2021, the Commission adopted a set of regulatory proposals to implement into EU law the measures that will allow reaching the EU's climate objectives. Several of those measures contribute to accelerating the decarbonisation of aviation. The revision of the EU Emissions Trading System will oblige airlines to purchase allowances (carbon credits) for all of their carbon emissions by 2027. As the price of carbon credits is increasing, this will encourage airlines to accelerate the reduction of their emissions. We propose to implement into EU law the global carbon offsetting and reduction scheme (CORSIA), to offset emissions of international flights beyond 2020 levels2. The Commission adopted a new regulation to ensure that airlines fly on increasing shares of sustainable aviation fuels (notably advanced biofuels and synthetic fuels), starting in 2025. The tax regime for aviation fuels is also proposed to be revised, to encourage airlines to use more sustainable aviation fuels instead of fossil fuels. Infrastructure at airports will have to cater for electricity supply for stationary aircraft at gates and remote positions, to avoid the use of engines running on fossil energy, when parked. Finally, the EU must continue to act as one block, together with like-minded countries, to push for ambitious sustainability policies at ICAO3 level, in particular to agree on a long-term goal for emission reductions.

Alongside these legislatives proposals, the Commission is putting forward many other incentives to accelerate the transition towards a green aviation. Just to mention a few, Horizon Europe and the two Joint Undertakings on Clean Aviation and SESAR (air traffic management) will mobilise significant funding in research and development. The Commission is setting up several industrial alliances to de-risk investments and create the necessary collaboration among investors, businesses and public authorities, for instance the Renewable and Low-Carbon Fuels Alliance, the Alliance on Zero Emission Aviation, or the Hydrogen Alliance.

These policy measures proposed by the Commission are an important part of the equation, but ultimately, real change will need to come from the industry. This is a very exciting challenge! As Director for Aviation, I will follow very closely every step of the aviation sector on its journey towards a low carbon future. We owe it to our citizens, and in particular to the young generations, to deliver sustainable flying in the nearest possible future.

1. Europe's aviation sector adopted the Destination 2050 initiative. The global aviation industry adopted a 2050 net-zero carbon goal.
2. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, during its pilot phase (2021-2023), CORSIA will offset the growth of emissions beyond 2019 level.
3. International Civil Aviation Organisation