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Europe is taking the lead on sustainable aviation fuel that many see as key to cutting airline carbon emissions. The EU has until the end of the year to come to an agreement over the amount and what kind of these fuels to mandate.

The European Union’s reputation of leading on climate issues is proving true once again with the adoption of sustainable aviation fuels. The bloc’s parliament is set to vote on new requirements later in June that would help cut carbon pollution by the end of the decade, while stirring debate in some industry circles.

EU transport ministers have recommended that the bloc mandate that 6 percent of all aviation fuel at European airports be of the sustainable variety by 2030. The mandate, known as ReFuelEU, is part of a larger package of carbon emissions reduction initiatives that aim to cut the bloc’s emissions 55 percent from 1990 levels by 2030.

The European parliament is set to vote on the larger package, dubbed Fit for 55, by the end of June. If approved, the policy would still need to be finalized across the branches of the EU government — a process comparable to the reconciliation of bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate — before a planned implementation deadline of January 1, 2023. 

The mandate would “stimulate production and use of sustainable fuels,” France’s minister for ecological transition Amélie de Montchalin said on June 1 after a meeting of transport ministers. “The aim is to reduce the carbon footprint with in particular the obligation to use more and more alternative fuels that are sustainable in aviation.”

Sustainable aviation fuel is seen by many in the industry as the easiest and fastest way to reduce carbon emissions. Global airline group the International Air Transport Association’s goal of carbon neutral aviation by 2050 relies on 65 percent of fuel needs coming from sustainable fuels. To put this in perspective, today a fraction of 1 percent of aviation fuel is the sustainable variety.

Sustainable aviation fuel ranges in type and carbon savings. Types include biofuels, or those made from things like used cooking oil or excess biomass, and synthetic fuels, like e-kerosene. However, there is no global standard for how much of an emissions reduction compared to fossil fuels is necessary for a fuel to be considered sustainable; in the U.S. the proposed standard is an at least 50 percent reduction.

European airlines want the EU to set and push policies that promote sustainable aviation fuels. They agree that European governments need to provide financial support, whether direct or through tax policy, for the development of these fuels. However, airlines differ over how high to set the sustainable fuel supply mandate.

European industry trade group Airlines for Europe (A4E), whose members include Air France-KLM, and the Lufthansa Group do not support the new 6 percent sustainable fuel requirement and prefer an earlier mandate of 5 percent by 2030.

“The transport ministers’ agreement on ReFuelEU aviation does not provide a concrete solution to the further loss of European airlines’ competitiveness and to the carbon leakage created by the proposal,” a Lufthansa spokesperson said. “In its current form, it leads to cost advantages and diversion of traffic to the benefit of non-European airlines.” 

On the other side of the issue is International Airlines Group (IAG), which includes British Airways and Iberia, that “welcomes” the 6 percent mandate, a spokesperson said. The group has committed to using sustainable fuels for 10 percent of its fuel needs by the end of the decade.

Removing 30,000 Transatlantic Flights

The type of sustainable aviation fuel that the EU mandates is also up for debate. Sustainable transportation advocacy group Transport & Environment wants the bloc to require that 2 percent of the 6 percent mandate be synthetic fuels, specifically e-kerosene. In a report out Thursday, the group argued that such a requirement would reduce aviation emissions by another 5 million metric tonnes of carbon by the end of the decade, or the equivalent of removing 30,000 transatlantic flights from the sky.

“Airlines need to realize that for them to invest in the wrong type of biofuels risks losing their credibility with their customers,” Transport & Environment Aviation Policy Officer Matteo Mirolo said. He warned that some biomass-derived sustainable fuels may not be as sustainable as some think, especially if they are made from feedstock that competes with food supplies or produces other environmental issues, like deforestation.

Finnish oil company Neste, which claims to be one of the largest producers of sustainable aviation fuels globally, was recently accused of using palm oil for its fuels that was made by suppliers who cleared thousands of acres of forest in Indonesia and Malaysia. Mirolo cited this as an example of “greenwashing,” or where a company promotes an image of environmental sustainability that is not entirely true.

The carbon offsets that many airlines offer travelers to supposedly defray the carbon footprint of their journeys are also said to be an example of greenwashing. For example, reports have found that certain offsets that claimed to preserve forests from being chopped down were not actually in danger.

Transport & Environment defines e-kerosene as synthetic fuel made by combining carbon with hydrogen created using renewable energy, like wind or solar power.

“The next five years are going to be the most important for e-kerosene,” Mirolo said. The statement is true of sustainable aviation fuel broadly that, despite public pronouncements of support from airlines for nearly a decade, has fallen well short of goals in terms of both development and production.

An EU sustainable fuel mandate is seen as just the beginning of a what many say are needed government policies to support these fuels, and decarbonize aviation. U.S. President Biden has repeatedly said he backs tax credits for sustainable aviation fuels, however, Congress has yet to come to an agreement on what form those credits could take. Elsewhere, initiatives continue to be airline, rather than government, led.

November 16, 2022
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Tags: carbon emissions, climate change, International Airlines Group, Lufthansa Group

Photo credit: A KLM aircraft is fueled with sustainable aviation fuel. KLM