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“Aviation Outlook 2050: air traffic forecast shows aviation pathway to net zero CO₂ emissions”

Aviation Outlook 2050

EUROCONTROL’s April 2022 Aviation Outlook 2050 report is a strategically important, independent view of the future evolution of Europe’s aviation industry and considers whether and how the industry will be able to meet its target of net carbon neutrality by 2050. Marylin Bastin, EUROCONTROL's Head of Aviation Sustainability and Denis Huet, EUROCONTROL's Head of Aviation Intelligence, report.

“Traffic is still expected to grow over the next 30 years but with a 10-year lag compared to the last long term forecast (2018). No single solution will enable aviation to achieve net zero CO2, but in all scenarios here it is the scaling up of the production,  distribution and use of SAF that makes the major contribution in the long term, with operational improvements helping more immediately.”

Europe’s aviation industry will be able to reach its target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, according to EUROCONTROL’s new Aviation Outlook 2050 report, but only if there is more closely aligned industry cooperation to meet European Union (EU) Green Deal targets and focused investment by Member States in areas such as increasing the scale up of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and market-based measures.

This is the first time that EUROCONTROL has published an integrated forecast of flights and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, combining the expertise of the Agency’s traffic forecasters and aviation sustainability experts. This report is complemented by the EUROCONTROL Objective Skygreen Think Paper and report (see Objective Skygreen: Reducing aviation emissions by 55% by 2030) looking in much more details at the elements leading to the achievability of emission targets set for 2030.

"The 2050 challenging objective is achievable, but it will not be easy – requiring coordinated action by aircraft manufacturers, airlines, airports, fuel companies, air navigation service providers, the EUROCONTROL Network Manager and, crucially, governments and regulators"

The report predicts there will most probably be 16 million flights in 2050, which is an increase in demand of 44% over 2019 at an average annual rise of 1.2% per year. This “most-likely” flight forecast presents a 10-year lag compared to the previous long-term traffic forecast (EUROCONTROL 2018 “Challenges to Growth” report). Asia-Pacific and the Middle East will be the most dynamic markets, despite the current measures in place to prohibit flights over Russian and Ukrainian airspace.

Flight forecast for Europe, with total growth between 2019 and 2050

IFR movements

“We don’t see any decrease in traffic by 2050,” said Denis Huet, Head of Aviation Intelligence. “We see an increase in fast train services and some individual States could be impacted by social pressure to reduce flights but overall, on a European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) level, we see demand for air travel continuing to rise.”

The report considers the environmental consequences of this. It predicts long-haul flights will continue to be the major source of CO2 emissions. Revolutionary fleet renewal (using electric or hydrogen propulsion) represents 2% of the 279 million tonnes of CO2 emissions savings required to meet the net zero target therefore the remaining required reduction in CO2 emissions will have to come from greater use of SAFs, ATM and operational improvements and out-of-sector measures.

Another key finding is that a relative contribution of eight per cent reduction in CO2 in 2030 to achieve the 2030 target will be possible through improved air traffic management (ATM) and airline operations, say the forecasters.

“This is an important short-term benefit which doesn’t require us to wait for new aircraft technology,” said Marylin Bastin, Head of Aviation Sustainability at EUROCONTROL and one of the authors of the report. There is currently a “pool” of fuel inefficiency in the ATM network of around 8.6%-11.2%, according to EUROCONTROL’s December 2021 Environmental Assessment: European ATM Network Fuel Inefficiency Study. This shows that all ATM actors also have a role to play to achieve net zero emission and this work can be achieved on shorter terms compared to other decarbonisation measures.

“The Network Manager together with the ATM stakeholders have improved fuel efficiency by 5% in 2020 over the crisis period by getting rid of network constraints (RAD),” said Marylin Bastin. “At the same time, it’s also important to work on capacity and to find synergies between capacity and environment as it doesn’t make sense to optimise trajectories if we then have several minutes of holding time at the airport."

One of the major challenges is for all stakeholders to agree on the definition of an optimal flight trajectory and to balance the trade-offs between environmental protection, delays and cost. A solution could be to further explore the concepts of enhanced Demand Capacity Balance (DCB) and trajectory brokering.

One of the biggest challenges facing the forecasters is to develop reliable forecasts at a time of unprecedented political, economic and industrial volatility. The forecast takes into account the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and predicts a slow growth rate when the pre-pandemic traffic levels are reached. But the longer-term impacts of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine have not been outlined, though will be absorbed within the bands of high- and low-demand bands, say the report authors.

“COVID-19 broke the link between economic growth and demand for air travel, but it is on the mend, even if in the future demand will increase more slowly,” said Denis Huet.

One conclusion of the report is somewhat counter-intuitive: the faster the industry grows the faster it will be able to decarbonise. “If the business is healthy, airlines have more capabilities to invest in environmental-saving technologies,” according to Marylin Bastin. In the optimistic “high-growth” scenario CO2 emissions (net of SAF, fleet and operational improvements) are reduced by about 65% compared to 2005 levels. In the “base” and most likely scenario the improvement is only 41%.

By 2050, CO₂ emissions (net of SAF, fleet and operational improvements) are reduced by about 41% compared to 2005 in the base scenario

EAO 2050 Base scenario

The report authors expect six new aircraft types introduced between 2025 and 2035 – including Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 replacements with 30% average better fuel consumption – and six other new types between 2035 and 2050, including four revolutionary (electric or hydrogen) short-haul airliners. This is a more modest estimation of when radical new aircraft might become available than the figures suggested by the Destination 2050 report prepared by Europe’s main aviation trade associations.

“There might be some hybrid electric aircraft by 2050 but not many, if you consider the time to develop these aircraft and certify them,” said Denis Huet. "In any case, they will not be operating on long-haul routes by that date."

And this is important. EUROCONTROL forecasters highlight the fact that a small minority of flights – those over 4,000 km – are responsible for around half of all CO2 emissions.

“All three scenarios forecast that the share of long-haul flights will increase by 2050. Over this time horizon, it will remain difficult to substitute for long-haul flying so the CO2 efficiency of SAF will be key,” says the report.

What evidence is there that governments are supporting SAF deployment?

“We have developed a SAF map which tracks policy actions taken by European States and industry initiatives,” said Marylin Bastin. “Currently the level of SAF availability is quite low but we are looking to work together with Member States to understand their stringent commitments and comprehensive sets of measures to scale up SAF. Many States are very ambitious in this area but the main problem is a lack of harmonisation between the levels of ambition. In our base scenario we have taken account of this and in our high scenario we reflect the commitment of States who have pledged to go further, faster.”

Long-haul continues to be the source of the majority of CO₂ emissions timeline in the all scenario (including the base)

Long-haul continues to be the source of the majority of CO₂ emissions timeline in the all scenario

Objective Skygreen: Reducing aviation emissions by 55% by 2030

In May 2022 EUROCONTROL published its think-paper and report on how the industry can make substantial environmental improvements over the next few years. The key conclusions are:

  • A 55% CO2 emissions reduction target by 2030 is achievable in ALL scenarios but this relies heavily on market-based measures.
  • The High scenario with the most traffic is counterintuitively the most efficient to reach net zero emissions by 2050 at lower cost, as higher revenues will drive increased investment in new technology.
  • Policy-driven decarbonisation measures will add EUR54.8-EUR62.0 billion in additional costs across the EUROCONTROL Network Manager area over the period 2022-2030 if all industry-driven actions are excluded, such as ATM optimisation (including SES), fleet update/ renewal, and increased SAF usage…
  • …but applying industry-driven measures can drastically reduce the cost of decarbonisation measures by EUR32.9-EUR45.7 billion over the same period.
  • The most important industry-driven measure is increasing SAF usage; for this to become a reality, the ReFuelEU Aviation initiative is essential in enabling a swift ramp up of SAF production and usage.
  • For the period 2022-2030, the extra cost of a 5% SAF blending share compared to 100% kerosene is estimated to be EUR10 billion in the base scenario, reaching EUR2.1 billion in 2030.
  • Industry-driven measures can deliver 13.4%-24.1% of the net emissions savings, depending on the pace of decarbonisation.
  • To reduce CO2 emissions quicker, airlines should accelerate the pace of fleet renewal by 3-7 years to ensure they operate the most efficient new technology.
  • We need to accelerate aviation decarbonisation by prioritising actions, fostering the transition (e.g. by offering financial support and encouraging alliances), and balancing taxation with the need for aviation to recover.

Thirty-year forecast (2022-2050 highlights)

In April 2022 EUROCONTROL published its report “EUROCONTROL Aviation Outlook 2050” which presents an integrated long-term traffic forecast together with a net CO2 forecast, based on the expertise of the Agency’s traffic forecasters and aviation sustainability experts:

  • The ‘most likely’ scenario forecasts 16 million flights by 2050, up to 44% over 2019…
  • … with a range of 13.2 million in a low growth scenario to 19.6 million at high growth
  • This represents a 10-year lag compared to the previous long-term traffic forecast published in 2018 (“EUROCONTROL Challenges to Growth” report), mainly due to the COVID crisis since March 2020.
  • Middle East and Asia Pacific are expected to be the fastest growing sectors.

By 2050, long-haul flights will continue to be the major source of CO2 emissions; net zero CO2 will be achievable but it will be very challenging, relying heavily on the development and availability of SAF as well as still requiring market-based measures.

The principal ways by which aviation will become more sustainable (and their respective relative contribution in 2050 to the ‘most likely’ scenario) are:

  • Evolutionary improvements to aircraft and engines, making them more efficient (17%);
  • Revolutionary new aircraft technologies, such as the deployment of electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft, together with the required infrastructure (2%);
  • More efficient flights, thanks to operational improvements such as improved air traffic management and aircraft operations (8%);
  • Gradually increasing use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF): 41%;
  • Other measures (e.g. Market-based measures, carbon capture): 32%.

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