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Sustainable pathways to future aviation

On 26 September, ERA attended the Sustainable Pathways to Future Aviation event in Brussels organised by the City of Vantaa, Helsinki EU Office and Airport Regions Conference. The meeting addressed the challenges and solutions to sustainable aviation and future of aviation growth. The main conclusion is that all stakeholders have the same goal (i.e. to decarbonise), and that the challenge cannot be addressed by one single solution or one single stakeholder, but rather by a set of solutions and an integrated approach of all stakeholders.

Max Hirsh (University of Hong Kong - expert on airport urbanism) addressed the question on how to make sustainable aviation a reality. He stated that the sector’s focus needs to be shifted from growth to decarbonisation. He, therefore, outlined three options to make the sector more sustainable:

  1. Build better aircraft by either transitioning to biofuels or changing the aircraft design. However, the costs for fleet renewal are still too high; biofuels are too expensive and there are not enough producers; and electric aircraft are still too heavy due to the weight of the battery. As a solution, governments could mandate a minimum level of biofuel and maybe use a tax to incentivise its use.
  2. Build better airports: some flights can be shifted to rail or air and rail transport could be combined into a system that allows for clean and seamless transport. As a solution, Max proposed new forms of cooperative governance, make air and rail combination a priority and redesign the terminal Policy makers should then incentivise and support airport development, as congestion at airports and holding time are very polluting.
  3. Build better airport areas: traveling to and from the airport remains one of the most polluting areas of the aviation industry. In smart cities there are alternative ways of getting to the airport via aviation transport or carpooling initiatives and demand services. The challenge is that parking provides the second source of profit for airports after retail. As a solution, a parking space could be transformed into a mall, for example.

Max ended his presentation with three proposals:

  1. Educate the public on what it is going to take to decarbonise the sector.
  2. Build new business models where sustainability is a priority.
  3. Invest in innovation. Governments need to help in areas that are more expensive.

Gregoire Le Comte (European Commission – DG MOVE) addressed the current developments on the policy side. He underlined the fact that the EU wants to be the forerunner in sustainability. In the past 25 years the sector has boomed and this has always been seen as a success story, whereas now, aviation has become a “victim of its own success”. In fact, the efforts taken by the industry to decarbonise have been outpaced by its own growth.

He stated that the EU ETS should be strengthened and that allowances for airlines could be decreased. There are discussions about a “carbon border”, however, this option still needs to be explored. Additionally, the EU is currently revising the Energy Tax Directive, where greener energy needs to be promoted.

As for the basket of measures, he outlined four big pillars and additional measures:

  1. Market-based mechanisms such as the EU ETS (cap and trade) and CORSIA (offsetting). CORSIA will have to be implemented in the EU level via the EU ETS. A study will start soon on how this will be done.
  2. ATM operations: in EU they are far from being optimal and airlines are not always incentivised to use the most optimal routes. Certain route charges incentivise airlines to use longer, less costly routes, which lead to more fuel burn. Therefore, a reform of the SES is necessary: SES II plus is currently blocked in the Council. Hopefully, under the next European Commission term, the EU will be able to continue with this proposal.
  3. Technology: there are different streams of funding for research (Clean Sky II- probably III, Connecting Europe) which address CO2, noise, non-CO2, electric and electric aircraft. There is a possibility of a Just Transition Fund to be used for sustainability projects and, therefore, for the sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) market. Finally the Innovation Fund might also be used for the sector.
  4. Behavioural change: it is necessary to better inform the citizens about the carbon footprint of their flights. Le Comte mentioned EASA’s Eco Label initiative that could help raise awareness among the public.
  5. GHG: aviation is also responsible for non-CO2 emissions: a study will start shortly to define the exact impact of these emissions.
  6. SAF offers a huge potential which is completely untapped. The objective of the EU is to reduce the dependency of the sector on kerosene. In the EU, the consumption of SAF is still very limited (1 per cent or below) and there needs to be the industry’s commitment and the right policy in place. There is growing interest among Member States and industry as well to explore this option.

Finally, the conference was closed by Andrew Watt (Eurocontrol – Head of Environment). He stated that decarbonising aviation is a challenge that cannot be addressed alone and that we need all stakeholders on board. The efficiency gains achieved so far by the sector’s decarbonisng efforts are being overwhelmed by its growth. Environmental impacts can constrain operational capacity and also the potential for sustainable growth. He then talked about the Collaborative environmental management tool which brings together different stakeholders (ANSPs, airports, airlines, policy makers) in order to address the issue from all four perspectives in an integrated way.