Environmental protection is both a challenge and an opportunity for European aviation

Airplane flying over treetops.

Editorial by
Eamonn Brennan 
Director General

In our work to control aviation’s impact on the environment EUROCONTROL faces both an extraordinarily complex challenge and a remarkable opportunity.

The European Commission’s Green Deal plans to make Europe the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050 and will result in all of us, citizens and businesses, benefitting from sustainable green transition. As well as cutting emissions it will require innovation on a grand scale, innovation which promises to transform Europe into a pioneer of sustainable technologies which can be exported worldwide.

Europe’s aviation industry has a critical role to play in this process. For too long we have been seen as a major part of the problem, rather than an integral part of the solution. Environmental campaigners have been able to portray our industry as carbon-fixated and elitist. However, as the articles in this issue of Skyway demonstrate, this view of aviation is misplaced. CEOs of airports, airlines and air navigation service providers believe in the science and evidence of global warming and are transforming their organisations so that sustainability can contribute to the growth of their businesses, not halt it.

In 2010 the International Air Transport Association (IATA) set an industry goal of achieving a 50% reduction in net emissions by 2050 compared to 2005, the first industry to agree such an industry-wide commitment. But some industry CEOs (see “For the industry to have a long-term future it has to be financially and environmentally sustainable” this issue) now regard this target as being too conservative and are pivoting their businesses to become zero net emission producers by 2050. This points to a major change in the way aviation is now embracing the concept of sustainability and, in the process, reconnecting with the societies and communities we all serve.

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Because we know we need a social licence to fly and if we fail to achieve this the consequences of failure will be dramatic. Apart from the climate change impacts, there will be the catastrophic loss of connectivity which will hit every part of the continent, from islands and remote communities for whom aviation is a real life-line, to cosmopolitan cities who rely on efficient and affordable transport links to the global community for their trade, education and social exchanges.

We also know that improvements have to be measured, prioritised and proven, otherwise we risk the accusations of “greenwash”. And EUROCONTROL is playing a vital role in providing independent and validated information on both aviation impacts and mitigation measures.

The total gate-to-gate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of IFR traffic in the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) area grew from 163 million tonnes in 2012 to 202 million tonnes in 2019, an increase of 24% over seven years. This is faster than the increase in flights, as we are seeing larger aircraft flying further, more than offsetting the increase in aircraft efficiency.

And the aircraft fleet is becoming progressively more efficient, with aero-engine fuel efficiency per tonne-km down around 10% over the last six years; there will be further improvements coming on-line continuously in the near future as airlines take delivery of more lean-burning aircraft and start to replace fossil fuels with sustainable fuel alternatives. While these improvements by themselves will not be enough to offset completely the effect of traffic growth, they are a major component in the process of the industry starting to make real change in controlling its emissions. The world’s first fully electric commercial aircraft took off from the Canadian city of Vancouver in December 2019 and there is a high probability that 50-seat hybrid passenger aircraft could enter service by the 2030s. However, it will take a few years longer before we see 200-seater aircraft akin to Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 in service. How are those aircraft going to fly? Are they going to fly slower? Higher? Faster? Are they going to climb as fast? How do we start integrating them into an air traffic management (ATM) system? Finding an answer to these questions will be one our key tasks.

The aviation industry cannot just wait while researchers try to find solutions to the technical challenges of developing electric propulsion solutions for larger airliners. This year could be a pivotal moment in the development of sustainable aviation fuels (See “Sustainable aviation fuels – 2020 could be a turning point for Europe”), which offer a medium-term solution to the problem of reducing emissions at a time of increasing traffic demand. The main challenge to their wholesale deployment is the relatively high cost of production and there could be an important role here for States to consider new policies to reduce costs and increase availability of more sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels. There is also currently no registry of sustainable aviation fuel usage across Europe, which we will need to measure adoption – this is a role which EUROCONTROL, with its experience in supporting the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, could be well placed to fill.

EUROCONTROL has identified five key priorities for the industry to adopt if the target of climate neutrality by 2050 is to be achieved:

  • Support the rapid transition to the wide-spread use of sustainable aviation fuels for long-haul flights in particular. SAF is too expensive and we must incentivise its production and use.
  • Develop highly efficient, large-capacity, short-haul aircraft to handle passenger throughput.
  • Undertake a total fleet renewal by 2050 so that aircraft only fly if they are wholly or partly electric, or for longhaul flights only use SAF.
  • Bridge the gap to electrification of short-haul passenger aircraft through hybridisation and improving battery energy densities, while developing hydrogen fuel-cell and electrofuel technology and infrastructure.
  • Change the European air traffic management network, and encourage environmental improvements through provision of shorter and better routes.

ATM can influence up to 10% of all aviation-derived CO2 emissions in Europe and we have a target to reduce this share to 2.4% by 2035. This is tough but achievable. We know this because we are already starting to see the benefits of our environmental protection programmes and can measure them with precision. Of these programmes, free route airspace is one of the most significant aspect of ATM emission improvement measures; when all the cross-border implementations have been completed it will allow airlines to reduce their fuel burn by 3,000 tonnes and their CO2 emissions by 10,000 tonnes every day.

We will also need to look at improvements in the descent phase of flight. We are currently working with a taskforce of stakeholders to develop a joint action plan on continuous climb and descent operations and supporting the redesign of airspace around busy hubs to provide more fuel-efficient operations, ensuring we have the right trade-off between noise and emissions.

"Europe's aviation industry has some tough environmental challenges ahead - but they are achievable"

EUROCONTROL is committed to helping its fellow aviation stakeholders reduce their environmental footprint. We have developed an expertise in carbon emission monitoring with the work we have done within the European Union Emission Trading System to reduce Europe’s share of global carbon emissions. We are evolving this to support the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme (CORSIA) whose Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) were adopted by the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in June 2018.

Between 2013 and 2020 the EU-ETS will have saved 193 million tonnes of CO2 while CORSIA could potentially mitigate around 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2 while generating approximately USD40 billion of climate financing by 2035.

EUROCONTROL’s Network Manager (NM) has initiated an Airspace Restructuring Programme and is in the process of putting in place a supporting Operational Excellence Programme. NM, with its SESAR JU partner, has been at the heart of the work of developing and implementing the Airspace Architecture Study, which will help bring delays back into line with the Single European Sky target and lead to between 240 and 450 kg of CO2 saved on average per flight over current levels by optimising trajectories. At the heart of all this work is a commitment to work with airspace users to achieve the greatest possible efficiency with the fleets that they have now. After all, most of the aircraft coming off the production lines now will still be flying 2050.

We are also committed to helping other aviation stakeholders in their plans to adapt their operations to climate change, including working with airports on the impact of greater precipitation or increased temperatures on their runway and taxiway operations and planning appropriate risk assessments and mitigation measures.

There is now a collective understanding by all aviation stakeholders in Europe that we must work together to meet the targets the global community has set us. EUROCONTROL has a vital role in supporting this work and it is one we are embracing enthusiastically.

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