A coalition of airlines, aviation sector companies, and European NGOs have expressed concerns over policy proposals to limit the scope of the European Union’s ReFuel EU Aviation initiative to intra-EEA flights. The legislation, to be proposed by the European Commission (EC), is expected to oblige the aviation sector to mix a percentage of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) into kerosene-based fuel.
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In a joint letter, dated March 10, 2021, and addressed to Vice-President Frans Timmermans and Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean, the signatories point out that long-haul operations are the primary source of the sector’s climate impact.
According to recent EUROCONTROL figures, just 6 percent of departing flights in Europe, long-haul flights over 4 000 km in length, account for around half of aviation’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
The chart shows, however, that there is an environmental cost. Longer distances naturally mean longer duration flights, and mostly by larger aircraft (hence the higher proportion of seats). That has a significant cost in terms of CO2. In 2020, more than half of European aviation’s CO2 emissions were from this tiny proportion of the overall number of flights. We have mentioned in other data snapshots how COVID-19 has affected the mix of longer- and shorter-haul flights. But this domination of emissions by a few longer-haul flights is not COVID-related: in 2019, the 6 percent that were long-haul had a 48 percent share of CO2, very similar to 2020, EURCONTROL noted in its data snapshot statement on February 16, 2021.
EUROCONTROL also noted that increasing the supply of sustainable aviation fuel to cover just 10 percent of the needs of long-haul, would do more than can ever be done in short-haul to reduce net CO2 emissions.
The signatories of the joint letter – Bond Beter Leefmilieu, easyJet, Jet2, Loganair, Natuur & Milieu, Pipistrel, Ryanair, SkyNRG, Transport & Environment (T&E), Wizz Air, and Wright Electric – highlight that long-haul flights, together with medium-haul flights make up 60-75 percent of the global emissions of European aviation and that most of these flights would be excluded in an intra-EEA only scope 3.
Europe is starting to take serious steps to reach net-zero emissions from aviation. We welcome the likely introduction of a blending mandate for sustainable aviation fuel which will function as a cornerstone measure for these ambitions. However, it is critically important that the mandate is based on the total amount of fossil jet fuel in the EU to achieve maximum impact with this policy measure, said Maarten van Dijk, Managing Director, SkyNRG.
Moreover, extra-EEA flights and long-haul hub operations are already excluded from many environmental policies such as the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and passenger taxes on transfer passengers.
Recent Eurocontrol data confirms that the real culprits are not short-haul flights for city hoppers taking a weekend break or holidaying in Europe, but long-haul flights / connecting flights which create half of European aviation’s CO2 emissions, yet account for just 6 percent of flights. Cutting just a fraction of these long-haul emissions would reduce more CO2 than is emitted from all of Europe’s short-haul flights combined. There is no logic in excluding long-haul flights from SAF usage obligations as this is their only possible way to decarbonize. We fully support the EU’s initiative to decarbonize aviation but all carriers, including long-haul, must play their part for this to be achieved, said Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair Group.
For short-haul flying, the signatories suggest that sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) are “only an interim step”, similar to offset, until zero-emissions technologies”, such as hydrogen or electric propulsion aircraft, will be available by the mid to late-2030s.
The EU’s SAFs mandate will only have a sizeable impact on aviation’s emissions if we all do our part, including the long-haul operators who are the largest source of emissions, and who need this technology for the long run. SAFs are only an interim step for short-haul carriers. Our ultimate solution is zero-emission propulsion which is why it is crucial that there are aviation-specific incentives for zero-emissions technologies like electric and hydrogen and why we must avoid all resources being drawn into SAFs, which don’t fully solve the problem. easyJet also operates carbon-neutral flying today by offsetting all our flights as an interim measure, said Johan Lundgren, CEO of easyJet.
These new, zero-emissions technologies, however, are not available for long-haul aviation in the foreseeable future, therefore SAFs continue to be key for long-haul aviation to mitigate its carbon emissions.
After investing in SAFs, and promoting them for years as the solution for decarbonizing aviation, long-haul operators are now trying to exclude their own flights from this mandate. This is wrong. If they want this technology, which essentially locks in the status-quo propulsion for decades, then they must be among the first to use it. We think cleaner disruptive technologies will come along and break the mould, as is happening with cars, for short-distance flights. We should only keep old propulsion systems where there is no alternative, as is the case for long-haul. Global competition cannot be the perennial excuse for inaction. We are not in the same position as a decade ago, and we do not believe the public will tolerate such inaction for long. It is now time for global aviation to play its part as well, József Váradi, Group CEO, Wizz Air
In addition, by potentially raising costs, SAFs could detract from ongoing efforts by technology manufacturers and short-haul carriers to switch to cleaner, zero-emissions solutions.
The signatories call on the European Commission to ensure the SAFs mandate does not delay the development of zero-emission propulsion. At the same time, the European Commission “needs to exclude biofuels from dedicated cropland” and ensure that advanced biofuels are sustainable and mandates for best-in-class fuels, such as synthetic kerosene, are included.
Sustainable aviation fuels are the solution for long-haul flights, which escape regulation of their pollution despite causing the bulk of emissions. All departing flights need to be covered by a green jet fuel mandate. But sustainable fuels must actually work for the environment too, which is why we need targets for synthetic fuels, stricter criteria for second-generation biofuels and no crop-based fuels, said William Todts, Executive Director at T&E,