Europe’s Aviation Sector Unveils New Plan for Net Zero Carbon by 2050

by Callum Tennant
Four engine plane taking off

Europe’s aviation sector has today set out a plan for achieving net zero CO² emissions by 2050, calling for ‘decisive’ government and industry action.

 The industry-wide, Destination 2050 report highlights four key strategies for achieving absolute emissions reduction of 92%, with the remaining 8% being removed through negative emission initiatives.

European Aviation’s role in reducing emissions

 Flight and passenger traffic have grown exponentially over the last decade. In Europe alone there were over 11million passenger movements in 2019. An increased number of flights has also led to substantially higher emission rates. Aviation accounts for 4% of Europe’s CO² emissions, well above the 2-3% global average.

European governments have agreed to reduce their emissions in international agreements, such as the Paris Climate Accord. Passenger numbers in Europe are expected to rebound to pre-Covid levels, before continuing to grow; reducing emissions of the sector will therefore be crucial going forward.

The four strategies of the Destination 2050 Report:

Improved aircraft and engine technology

 New engines and aircraft, many of which are still in development, form a key part of the report’s strategy.

A turbine jet engine

The report predicts that single-aisle hydrogen powered aircraft will begin flying intra-European routes by 2035. Hybrid electric aircraft , with a fuel burn per flight which is 50% lower than today’s aircraft, could also be flying regional routes by 2030.

Destination 2050 warns that if future aircraft are to be available from 2035, then technology needs to be ready from as soon as 2027.  To achieve this, the study calls for a “collaborative research programme” and “efficient new certification for disruptive technologies.”

Even without new technologies, the next generation of aircraft are expected to have a fuel burn per flight that is 30% lower than current models. Encouraging the replacement of older and inefficient aircraft types is central to cutting emissions. The Destination 2050 roadmap states that: “Expedited replacement of older aircraft… may realise CO² emission reductions even earlier.”

With the aviation sector reeling from the economic impacts of Covid-19, it’s unclear how much enthusiasm there will be for a new drive of research and development (R&D). But more efficient fuel technologies do offer payback benefits in the form of lower costs. The report also highlights, that Europe will gain “important first-mover advantage” if it invests and moves quickly in rolling out new technologies.

 More efficient air traffic management and aircraft operations

Air Traffic control tower

 Whilst hydrogen powered planes may seem like a far-off concept, there are actions that European actors could be taking right now to reduce their emissions.

The study emphasises that digital air traffic management and a network-centric approach are vital in improving flight path efficiency, reducing wasteful emissions. The report also highlights that a single European approach will require a certain “political willingness” of individual countries, but that this is imperative to improving efficiency.

Destination 2050 focuses on more granular and local level actions as well, arguing that individual airports have a role to play, by improving ground operations. For example, using electrical towing and taxiing solutions and making renewable energy available to power parked aircraft.

All of this will require a regulatory environment that incentivises rapid decarbonisation and a willingness to invest in long term carbon cutting schemes.

Sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs)

 SAFs, a topic which is frequently covered by Travel Radar, are described by the initiative as a “major contribution to achieving net zero carbon emissions in 2050”.

Sustainable fuel comes from feedstock, rather than traditional jet fuel, and can reduce carbon emissions by up to 80%.  SAFs are currently mixed with traditional jet fuels, usually around 50% SAF to 50% traditional fuel. This percentage is known as the blend. The higher the blend, the less carbon an aircraft will emit.

The report predicts that if SAFs are given “strong political support”, then they could account for 83%

of all jet fuel by 2030 (SAFs currently make up just 6%).  It goes on to add that the blend percentage could be increased from 50% to 100%.

Jet exhaust

However, like most actions detailed, this would require consistent government support and reducing price gaps. Destination 2050 argues that measures to de-risk investments and boost production of SAFs are needed. These could include measures such as subsidies and carbon pricing.

A monitoring and accounting framework is also recommended, to ensure that all SAFs are sourced in the most economically and environmentally efficient way.

Economic Measures

 The study also urges economic measures that can be deployed in the short term, stating that they will be “central” to reducing emissions. Although the report insists that such measures must be market-based. If economic measures are adapted, the study predicts that carbon emissions could be reduced by up to 27%.

Destination 2050 predicts that carbon credits and price allowances will eventually lead to a situation where carbon removal becomes an attractive and profitable industry. However, like other aspects of the report, this assumes that carbon removing technology will continue to improve, whilst also becoming more affordable.

Will Destination 2050 work?

The Destination 2050 Report is successful in setting out a comprehensive framework that both industry and government could follow to reduce emissions. The report also benefits from having been designed on an industry- wide basis.

Plane cockpit

However, showing industry and government what they should be doing, and actually getting them to do it are two different things.

Olivier Jankovec, Director General at ACI Europe, echoed this sentiment, stating that: “Whilst we embrace our responsibilities, it is clear that we cannot do this alone. It takes two to tango.”

Despite this, the report does increase the pressure on European actors to reduce their emissions and demonstrates the willingness of parts of the industry to take the initiative.

The study will also provide campaigners and environmentalists with a checklist, with which they can hold government and industry to account, pressing them on their progress – or lack of it.

It is now up to policy makers and industry to work together to encourage innovation, creating an environment where aviation decarbonisation is central to operations and economic strategy.

 Which part of the Destination 2050 Report do you think is most crucial? Let us know what you think below.

 

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