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European Aviation Summit: Why the Future of Low-Carbon Aviation is at Stake in Toulouse

European Aviation Summit: Why the Future of Low-Carbon Aviation is at Stake in Toulouse
 Iona Lefebvre
Former project Manager - Regional Development

On February 3 and 4, the European Aviation Summit was held in Toulouse. Organized within the framework of the French presidency of the Council of the European Union, the summit resulted in the signing of the Toulouse Declaration. Among the signatories were 42 countries, as well as the European Commission, represented by Transport Commissioner Adina Valean. All parties to the treaty committed to making air transport carbon neutral by 2050. The declaration also gathered support from 150 companies and stakeholders in the aviation and energy sector.

This event marks a turning point for the aviation sector. In 2021, the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), representing members of the global aviation industry, committed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. In contrast to the ATAG declaration, the Toulouse Declaration now includes EU member states and fifteen other countries, including the United States, Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom and Morocco. By involving states as well as private actors, the declaration marks a historic step ahead of the sustainable transition of the aviation sector. 

This declaration will also serve to open the dialogue at the next General Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in November 2022. Doing so, it calls upon the 193 member states to adopt ambitious long-term targets for carbon emissions in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

The strategic position of France and Europe 

Toulouse is the European capital of aeronautics, and plays a key role in industrial development and innovation in the aviation sector. Organizing the summit in Toulouse therefore sends a strong message to the rest of the world: France is seizing its presidency of the Council of the European Union to initiate important commitments for the aeronautics industry. It will assume a leadership role in the energy transition of a sector that is strategic for the country’s economy as well as its industrial influence. 

This summit also represents an opportunity to recall the essential role of aviation in our model of international mobility.

This summit also represents an opportunity to recall the essential role of aviation in our model of international mobility. According to the declaration, aviation ensures the "regional and global multimodal connectivity of Europe and the rest of the world". It also serves as an "engine of development and socio-economic cohesion".

As Institut Montaigne points out in the report, Decarbonized Aviation: Now Boarding, air transport provides a form of mobility that cannot be substituted by alternative modes of transportation. In particular, for long distance traveling or accessing specific geographical areas (e.g. islands). Moreover, aviation acts as a catalyst for connectivity, innovation and productivity. The ATAG indicates that a 10% increase in air traffic would result in a 0.5% growth in global GDP per capita over the long term. The sector also supports 44.8 million jobs in tourism worldwide. On a European scale, the aeronautics industry provides 13.5 million direct and indirect jobs. In France, the aeronautics sector is one of the main industrial sectors, representing 74 billion euros in sales in 2019, two-thirds of which derive from exports. 

The aviation sector’s greenhouse gas emissions represent 2 to 3% of global emissions, and 10% of the transport sector's emissions. Strong and immediate action to support its decarbonization is essential to confirming the sector as a world-class player in terms of competitiveness and technology. In the future, this will allow aviation to meet the expectations of citizens, public authorities and stakeholders. 

European commitments to decarbonize air transport

The EU is among the regional players who have made strong commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Member states intend to accelerate decarbonization by integrating the aviation sector into their collective efforts. The "Fit for 55" plan unveiled by the Commission in the summer of 2021 sets out ambitious targets to achieve a 55% reduction in emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. If these measures are adopted by the European parliament and the EU member states, there will be substantial changes for players in the aviation sector.

The European Commission suggests modifying the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS-EU) by abolishing the allocation of free allowances for European aircraft carriers by 2027. It also proposes a steeper annual emissions reduction of 4.2%, compared to 2.2% under the current system. To avoid distorting competition among European airlines, Institut Montaigne further recommends ensuring the alignment of different carbon allowance systems in the long term. In particular, the EU-ETS and the CORSIA (ICAO’s market mechanism) will need to be aligned with the industry's "net zero" objective. A special review of CORSIA is planned for 2032 in order to determine its role, if any, beyond 2035.

To avoid distorting competition among European airlines, Institut Montaigne further recommends ensuring the alignment of different carbon allowance systems in the long term. 

Currently, intra-European flights are exempted from a tax on kerosene. In the future, European authorities will need to gradually introduce taxes for such flights. This will also strengthen the competitiveness of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) as an alternative to kerosene. 

The Commission's plan also proposes to develop the demand of airlines, as well as the supply, of SAFs, by supporting the production of a competitive European SAF industry. The ReFuelEU Aviation initiative intends to impose a mandate on fuel suppliers to include SAF in aviation fuel supplied at EU airports. Starting from 2025, the Commission will introduce a gradual increase of the share of SAFs in kerosene, by 2% per year, with the goal of achieving a mandatory threshold of 63% of SAFs (biofuels and synthetic fuels) within conventional airplane fuels by 2050. Moreover, by the beginning of 2022, France had already introduced a mandatory threshold of 1% of SAF in kerosene. However, these measures risk distorting the competition among European airlines. In its report, Institut Montaigne therefore recommends the establishment of a European compensation mechanism for flights departing from the EU in the short term. This should serve to subsidize the incorporation of SAF without additional costs compared to kerosene. In the medium term, a possible solution could involve aligning the mandatory inclusion of SAF in kerosene with the point of origin of the passenger's journey. In the long term, the ICAO should implement these measures in a uniform manner at the global level, in order to avoid distortions in competition, and support the global demand of SAFs. At the same time, it should aim to promote the development of multiple production channels for SAFs. 

Beyond the concrete commitments of France and the EU, it is essential to develop a common roadmap for all countries at the ICAO level. Decarbonizing a sector that is global in nature should not be limited to regional commitments, and requires strong international cooperation.

Beyond commitments: what’s the roadmap?

The Toulouse Declaration recognizes that decarbonization is a "complex challenge, which should be addressed through a variety of measures". However, the paper fails to deliver an operational roadmap to achieve this transition. The signatory countries recognize the importance of improving aircraft technology, flight and ground operations, fleet renewal, the use of SAF (which requires the establishment of a supply chain), market-based measures, carbon pricing, financial incentives, and support for environmental and climate innovation in the sector. It also recognizes that the measures for achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 are varied, and require increased partnerships between industry, energy providers and governments. 

In order to effectively meet the 2050 decarbonization objective, the declaration needs to be supplemented by a global roadmap for action across public and private sectors.

By including 42 countries, and promoting strong cooperation within the framework of the ICAO in favor of carbon neutrality, the Toulouse Declaration already represents a historical step for the aviation sector. However, in order to effectively meet the 2050 decarbonization objective, the declaration needs to be supplemented by a global roadmap for action across public and private sectors. The report by Institut Montaigne provides a potential outline for this roadmap. It also includes an assessment of required investments and necessary regulations to reach carbon neutrality.

Based on the industry roadmap, "Waypoint 2050", the report identifies four priority measures. The first concerns technological developments, amounting to 34% of all decarbonization efforts. The second measure considers the optimization of flight and ground operations, representing 7% in the equation. Sustainable aviation fuels will amount to 53% of the decarbonization effort, representing the lion’s share of efforts to implement carbon neutrality. Finally, compensation measures represent 6% of the decarbonization effort. 

The report identifies technological developments as a priority, and recommends a gradual reduction in kerosene consumption. It also emphasizes the importance of the current investment momentum in breakthrough technologies, such as new engines or hydrogen-powered aircraft; the EU Strategy has set out to make zero-emission large aircraft market-ready by 2035. Certification models for these new technologies should be prepared early on. Above all, the main method for decarbonization is the use of sustainable aviation fuels, including biofuels. These are primarily derived from biomass, such as agricultural crops or human waste. SAFs should also include synthetic fuels, derived from industrial processes combining CO2 captured from the air, and hydrogen. These technologies will represent the bulk of decarbonization efforts for long-haul flights.

Institut Montaigne furthermore highlights that there is a limited availability of biofuels for air transport. Hence, synthetic fuels should be the preferred way to decarbonize the sector. In addition, the development of this pathway represents a short-term opportunity to stimulate the hydrogen industry. France is already devoting a budget of 7 billion euros until 2030 for the development of decarbonized hydrogen. However, the manufacturing process for synthetic fuels requires large quantities of decarbonized electrical energy. In light of this energy challenge, the entire global electricity production system should be re-examined. According to the report, the required level of investment for decarbonizing all transport by 2050 is $1,000 billion per year. This level of investment is accessible if proactive measures are put in place, through coordinated action by governments, electric power producers, and industry players.

Beyond commitments to carbon neutrality, the next step for decarbonizing air transport should be defining and adopting a global roadmap shared by all governments and players in the aviation sector. This roadmap should pay special attention to investments in decarbonized electric energy. 


Copyright: Stefani Reynolds / AFP

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