European aviation players chart path to net-zero emissions that relies on undeveloped technological progress

February 24, 2021

Europe’s largest aviation associations have published the Destination 2050 roadmap, which contends that the sector can achieve net-zero by 2050 while simultaneously growing passenger numbers by 1.4% annually. Airlines, manufacturers, air traffic controllers and airports claim that this is possible for flights within and departing from the European Economic Area, Britain and Switzerland. The paper cites next-generation aircraft powered by hydrogen and battery electric technology, and sustainable aviation fuel, as the main long-term measures to achieve that aim, and suggests offsetting as a short-term remedy until those technologies become widely available. The findings come amid mounting pressure on the aviation industry to curb its environmental footprint, with Air France-KLM and Austrian Airlines having climate conditions attached to their post-Covid bailouts.

Considering that global aviation accounts for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions and the total annual emissions from aviation have doubled since 1987, the co-ordinated approach set out in the Destination 2050 roadmap is a welcome development, and shows the industry is acknowledging the significant shift required to achieve net-zero emissions. However, this roadmap seems to have a slightly optimistic perspective. Firstly, two of the four key measures proposed are improvements in aircraft technologies and the use of sustainable aviation fuels, neither of which is currently close to being available. These measures rely heavily on their upcoming development and mass-market adoption, yet account for over 71% of the reductions outlined in the roadmap pathway. Technological progress is under way, for example we have recently seen the world’s first commercial flight powered with synthetic kerosene, but there are still significant barriers to being able to roll out a synthetic fuel that competes with traditional aviation fuel prices.

Secondly, the roadmap estimates that residual emissions will account for 8% of total aviation emissions, which will be removed through “smart economic measures”, including carbon offsetting. This is likely to be a challenge, as any residual emissions will need to be removed using carbon neutralisation projects, such as carbon capture and storage, to achieve true net-zero by 2050. This is instead of more traditional offsets, such as investments in renewable energy projects, which compensate for emissions but do not always guarantee true CO2 removals from the atmosphere. Carbon neutralisation is a relatively new science and, much like synthetic fuels, still has far to go.

As the aviation industry recovers from the fallout of Covid-19, it will need to follow and maintain an increasingly ambitious trajectory to become net-zero by 2050. Without the revolutionary technological progress assumed in the roadmap, it is difficult to see how net-zero can be achieved at all.

Author: Calum Love