New EU Policy Proposals Do Not Help The Airline Industry To Improve Environment Credentials
The European Commission has just launched a range of new climate change proposals under the banner “Fit for 55”. The aim being to reduce emissions in the EU by 55% compared to 1990 levels, by 2030.
It has been met with disbelief by the airline industry, as far from helping it to progress on its environmental credentials, the proposed measures actually risk handicapping it.
There is no disputing that aviation has its work cut out to meet improved emissions performance but it is something that industry leaders take seriously. Airline industry body IATA has already “committed to cut CO2 emissions in half by 2050 with innovative technologies, sustainable aviation fuel and improved operations and infrastructure.”
Not surprisingly achieving this is an extremely demanding task, which faces numerous challenges, not least technological and financial. For this economically critical sector the last thing it needs is to find its efforts inhibited by government, yet the proposals from the EU which are yet to be ratified by member states and the European Parliament, take a punitive approach to the industry.
There are plans to tax aviation fuel which would add to a heavy taxation burden already weighing down the industry. It is not as though airlines can suddenly stop using kerosene so taxing it will achieve nothing to further the green agenda.
There is already a vast amount of work to deliver sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) using waste products including, for example, used cooking oil. These are targeted to reduce the sector’s emissions substantially, but at the moment there is minimal production and costs are high. More progress could be made if the EU endeavoured to work more closely with the industry to address these two challenges by investing in expanding output and making it affordable for airlines to switch to much greater use of SAFs.
Similarly, research and development into alternative engine power sources, particularly hydrogen and electric, is underway but is not likely to yield much in the way of results until the 2030’s. The financial resources required are beyond the means of airlines themselves given that they are still deep in the midst of the covid crisis and will be laden with debt for years to come once it’s over.
This is exactly the type of area where the EU should also be partnering with the industry by investing in the acceleration of these efforts, expediting the delivery of benefits.
Carbon offsetting to get more expensive
Airlines are already trying to mitigate existing emissions through investment in carbon offsetting yet the EU plans to reduce the “free” allowance for aviation making this more expensive and again adopting a stick rather than a carrot approach with the industry.
Improvements could be delivered today by SESAR
Perhaps the single biggest frustration for the industry when it comes to the EU approach to the environment is that for decades there has been discussion of much more efficient use of airspace under the Single European Sky (SESAR) initiative. Currently air space management is organised along broadly national geographic boundaries which is far from optimal and leads to longer, more circuitous flight routings and delays.
IATA estimates that the improvements which would be delivered by implementation of SESAR would reduce emissions by 6-10% annually. That’s a significant reduction without the need for any complex technological advances on fuels or engines. The aircraft technology which would permit these improvements is already embodied in today’s airline fleets, it is a lack of political will which is preventing progress.
In its proposals the Commission “calls on the European Council and the European Parliament to agree quickly on the updated Single European Sky regulatory framework”. Warm words but the Commission needs to deliver results after so much lost time.
The Commission expresses concern about “mobility poverty” yet aviation has been the biggest enabler of social mobility around Europe and the risk is that if airlines are simply loaded with additional costs, ticket prices will rise excluding more people, whilst failing to deliver the necessary environmental improvements.
The urgency to address climate change has never been greater but whilst the Commission’s objectives are laudable, it needs to reconsider its approach with regard to the airline business.
It must manifest a greater willingness to invest in and engage with the sector rather than resorting to blunt and ineffective taxation measures.