According to a recent EIA Report ("International Energy Agency, Aviation Tracking Report 2020"), thanks to operational and technical efficiency measures adopted by commercial airlines, including new aircraft purchases, between 2000-2019, commercial passenger flight activity grew about 2.5-fold (or 5% per year), while CO2 emissions rose by 50% (or 2% per year). The energy intensity of commercial passenger aviation thus decreased 2.8% per year on average.
In order to further significantly decrease its emissions while keeping a healthy economic growth, the aviation sector needs to reduce its current exclusive reliance on fossil jet fuel and accelerate its transition to innovative and sustainable types of fuels and technologies.
The aviation sector lacks immediate alternatives to liquid fuels for commercial aircraft propulsion. New zero-emission aircraft technologies such as electric- or hydrogen-powered aircraft are promising especially for short-haul flights but not expected to be mature soon enough to play a significant role in commercial aviation in the short or medium term.
Sustainable aviation fuels (For this purpose, sustainable aviation fuels means liquid drop-in fuels substitutable to conventional aviation fuel.) have the potential to deliver a major contribution to achieving the European Green Deal’s increased EU climate target for 2030 and the EU’s climate neutrality objective by 2050. In this view, the Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy adopted by the European Commission in December 2020 set out the objective to boost their uptake by the aviation industry.
On 14 July 2021, the European Commission adopted the Fit For 55-package including the RefuelEU Aviation initiative. The initiative proposes the creation of a European-level mandate on the supply and use of Sustainable Aviation Fuels at all major EU airports.
The ReFuelEU Aviation initiative proposes EU-wide harmonised rules for sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) that will apply to all operators and therefore create a level-playing field. Specifically it contains an obligation on airlines to uplift SAF-blended aviation fuel when departing from EU airports. And at the same time, it introduces an obligation on fuel suppliers to include increasing shares of SAF into jet fuel from 2025 to 2050.
While respecting the principle of technological neutrality, the initiative promotes first and foremost advanced biofuels and synthetic fuels, produced from green electricity and in line with the sustainability requirements under the Renewable Energy Directive. Those fuels are promising both in terms of emissions savings and innovation and growth to meet future needs.
The ReFuel Aviation is supported by a number of flanking measures, consisting of intensified European efforts at ICAO level to raise global ambition on SAF use, the creation of the European strategic alliance for renewable and low carbon fuels, and initiatives to facilitate SAF certification.
These efforts are being accompanied by the EU’s emission trading system (ETS) in aviation, the global Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) as well as actions relating to Single European Sky, its research arm SESAR Joint Undertaking (which offer potential benefits of up to 10% emissions reductions) and aviation research and technical development.
Investment needs will be supported by governments and EU funding instruments (e.g. ETS Innovation Fund, InvestEU, Recovery and Resilience Facility, Horizon Europe, others).
The EU Taxonomy for sustainable activities will support channelling such investments in the areas of air services, aircraft manufacturing and ground-handling taking into account sustainability principles.