Efficiency in aviation

By Jutta Paulus, MEP, (pictured)
Summer 2022

Jutta Paulus, MEPThe cheapest energy is the one that is not being used. It does not have to be produced, processed, and transported. As energy efficiency has been ignored for far too long, the climate crisis and Russia's invasion and war in Ukraine now require quick and far-reaching adjustments of the efficiency performance in all sectors and member states. Unfortunately, the transport sector was excluded from the application of efficiency targets in the past. Though this is slowly beginning to change, it is particularly challenging for the aviation sector.

The EU's Energy Efficiency Directive (EED) sets EU energy targets to reduce the bloc's energy consumption. I am currently involved in the negotiations for its revision and my aims are to raise the energy saving target and reduce the primary and final energy consumption. Increasing energy efficiency by one percent alone reduces 2.6 percent of gas imports, but our ambition should go further. The one sector where emissions have not decreased but increased since 1990, transport is not covered by the EED. However, I am currently working towards a sub-target here together with my fellow negotiators.

The transport sector is responsible for 30 percent of Europe's final energy consumption, and the rate between final and primary energy consumption is exceptionally poor here. After a long time of ignorance, the European Commission finally made proposals to increase the transport sector's efficiency within the REPowerEU package which aims to reduce European dependency on Russian energy imports and enhance the bloc's energy sovereignty. In light of the war in Ukraine, this must go fast, which is probably the reason why the Commission included the transport sector into its proposals for efficiency measures after all. Next to recommendations for voluntary behavioural change by individuals and societies, as, walking or biking for instance or reducing the maximum speed on highways, the Commission announced to suggest new proposals for the electrification of road transport, the greening of freight and the support of public transport. These are urgently needed steps forward, however, they do not apply to aviation. Even worse, there are no efficiency requirements for the aviation sector at all.

With regard to the climate crisis, but also to European energy sovereignty, it is hard to imagine that efficiency levels in the aviation sector can stay the same as today. As part of the European Green Deal, the new EU Regulation ReFuelEU Aviation aims to reduce harmful emissions of air transport. Unsurprisingly, the main problem is the reliance on fossil fuels, as biofuels cannot be produced at such large scale and a synthetical fuel industry has yet to evolve. Therefore, reducing the overall aviation fuel demand could significantly reduce flying's climate impact. This could be achieved by fuel efficiency measures, cutting fuel waste and mandatory trainings for pilots, or by creating synergies with other transport modes to facilitate a modal shift to viable sustainable alternatives where they exist. Incentives to adapt could be furthermore achieved by eliminating direct and indirect subsidies to the aviation sector, such as ending jet fuel tax and flight ticket VAT exemptions or cutting free allowances in the EU's emission trading system.

When produced from renewable electricity and carbon captured directly from the air, synthetic aviation fuels can achieve as high as 100% emissions savings compared to conventional aviation fuel. As wind and solar energy have much higher harvest factors per area than biofuels, synthetical aviation fuels are the only solution that can be developed at the necessary scale, quotas for the use of synthetic aviation fuels are necessary to incentivise investment.

In order to meet the European Union overall emission reduction targets, there is a particular need for modal shift. Where sustainable alternatives exist, short-haul flights should be subject to higher mandates of sustainable fuels. Aviation is one of the most inefficient means to transport weight over distances. It is therefore important to reduce air traffic and switch to more energy efficient and sustainable transport modes like rail or water transport where possible. If societal and environmental cost were included in ticket prices, at least short-haul flights for travel distances below 500 km would instantly cease to be economically viable.

The effects of non-CO2 emissions which make up to two thirds of aviation’s climate impact were ignored for far too long. We Greens/EFA managed to include paragraphs on the need to decrease them in the opinions of the European Parliament's industry and environment committees on the ReFuelEU Aviation legislation. The transport committee should take these concerns seriously and include these paragraphs in its position. The non-CO2 impact of aviation is highly correlated to the aromatics and sulphur contents of jet fuel. Therefore, we call for a reporting obligation for fuel suppliers and, ultimately, a legislative proposal to limit their content. This would not only lower aviation's climate impact, but at the same time improve air quality in the vicinity of airports.

A future without aviation is unthinkable. However, the time for sustainable aviation has come. Researchers and developers all over the world are working on electrical and hydrogen planes for short haul flights, technologies for the production of synthetical fuels are waiting for investors. As one of the last sectors left for sustainable adjustments, aviation must start its journey into the future.