Radically cleaner air travel possible but…

… governments need to act now.

Aviation is responsible for 5% of global warming and its rapid growth puts it on track to consume a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. There is a way to avoid this outcome but we need to act fast, a green transport NGO has said. By driving out the use of fossil kerosene fuel through carbon pricing and requiring aircraft to switch to synthetic fuels, the climate impact of flying can be reduced dramatically, according to a new report by Transport & Environment (T&E), published on 22 October.

While high profile promises such as short-haul electric aircraft or more efficient aircraft designs every 20 years won’t be sufficient to solve aviation’s climate problem, new near-zero-carbon electrofuels can be produced today and deployed immediately using existing engines and infrastructure. Electrofuels are produced by combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide, but to do this sustainably the hydrogen must be produced using renewable electricity and the CO2 captured directly from the air.

Synthetic fuels have been used in the past to power aircraft but are significantly more expensive than aviation kerosene, which is tax free. Running aircraft entirely on synthetic fuels would increase the cost of a plane ticket by 58% assuming kerosene remains untaxed, or 23% if a proper carbon price would be levied on kerosene, the report finds. Biofuels produced from wastes and residues can make a limited contribution to replacing fossil kerosene. Norway recently announced it would require jet fuel providers to blend half a percent of advanced biofuels into jet fuels from 2020.[1]

Today’s technology gives possibilities

Andrew Murphy, aviation manager at T&E, said: “This report confirms that we need to decarbonise aviation if we want to avoid catastrophic global warming. The good news is that radically cleaner aviation is possible even with today’s technology. Getting to zero starts with properly pricing flying, and progressively increasing the use of sustainable synthetic fuels. There is a cost to this, but in light of how cheap subsidised air travel has become, and the incalculable cost of runaway climate change, it’s a price worth paying.”

To facilitate the progressive switch to electrofuels, demand for kerosene must start to be cut and carbon pricing must gradually be increased to the equivalent of €150 a tonne, the report finds. Taxing aircraft kerosene – currently exempt – and a strengthened EU ETS can help achieve this as can strict CO2 efficiency standards for planes and greater incentives for fleet renewal.

A leaked version of the European Commission’s strategy to decarbonise the EU’s economy by 2050 highlighted the potential role of synthetic fuels.[2] Earlier this month the IPCC also emphasised the importance of synthetic jet fuel.[3] Meanwhile, governments are pursuing a controversial UN offsetting scheme for aviation, known as Corsia. There are serious doubts over the environmental effectiveness of carbon offsets and the UN’s plan only caps airlines’ emissions at 2020 levels.

Opportunity for European Commission

Andrew Murphy concluded: “Putting aviation on a pathway to zero won’t be easy but this report shows it can be done. If we want to succeed we need to stop pursuing false solutions. It’s crystal clear that the UN’s plan to let airlines offset their emissions is a distraction at best. We need governments to focus on the things that matter: proper pricing and cleaner fuels. The European Commission has a unique opportunity to commit to this in its 2050 decarbonisation strategy.”

It is also essential that the non-CO2 effects of aviation – NOx emissions at altitude, contrails, cirrus cloud formation, soot – are also addressed as they equal or exceed those of CO2. Cleaner fuels will help but aviation’s impacts on the atmosphere are complex and policy-makers need to get serious about identifying solutions. T&E said the European Commission must respond with a full assessment and proposal on non-CO2 measures by January 2020, as the revised ETS Directive requires.