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EU law to green aviation fuels faces resistance amid energy crisis

The European Commission is pushing for greater use of sustainable aviation fuel in Europe
The European Commission is pushing for greater use of sustainable aviation fuel in Europe

The RefuelEU Aviation law would determine what constitutes sustainable alternative fuels and set minimum requirements for their use, with potential repercussions on flight costs.

Reducing emissions from the aviation industry to meet climate targets is a complicated business — there is no alternative for people wanting to travel long distances in a relatively short amount of time and currently no alternative to liquid fuels. The EU, as part of its efforts to reduce emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030, is aiming to agree legislation that would slowly green fuels. 

Final negotiations on the ReFuelEU Aviation law between the European Commission, Parliament and Council kicked off in Brussels on September 8. The EU executive, members of the European parliament, non-government organisations and the aviation industry are aligned on many aspects of the proposal, but member states may be reluctant to back plans that will increase ticket prices, given the ongoing energy and cost-of-living crises.

All planes refuelling in the EU must, from 2030, use increasing amounts of sustainable aviation fuels to reduce emissions, says the Commission. SAFs include biofuels made from renewable sources or waste, and electro-fuels. Today, they represent just 0.05 per cent of total jet fuel consumption in Europe, according to the Commission. It believes SAFs should account for at least 5 per cent of aviation fuels by 2030 and for 63 per cent by 2050. The European Parliament suggests, however, that aviation fuel should include 2 per cent of SAF from the earlier date of 2025, rising to 85 per cent by 2050.

Negotiators also have to decide exactly what constitutes a SAF. First-generation biofuels, such as palm oil, which compete with food crops and which, as mono-crops, can negatively impact biodiversity, have no place in SAFs, says the Commission. Waste oils can also be problematic, states Matteo Mirolo from Transport & Environment, a Brussels-based NGO. “If they are imported from parts of the world with low environmental standards, how can we prove there is no palm oil in there?” Some MEPs have previously voiced support for such “problematic feedstocks”. Instead, industry and environmentalists would prefer efforts to be focused on synthetic fuels or e-kerosene, produced from green hydrogen. 

“We don’t want SAFs that are linked to deforestation or that impact food production,” says Laurent Donceel, senior policy director at A4E, an industry group representing European airlines including RyanAir, EasyJet and Tui. “If orangutans die, the backlash won’t be against fuel suppliers, but against the airlines. Some people in the industry say we will shoot ourselves in the foot by not accepting certain SAFs and pushing up prices, but the environmental and reputational damage is too high.” The production costs of SAF are at least twice as high as that of conventional jet fuel, according to the Commission.

Another issue likely to cause a headache for the negotiators is whether airlines should physically have to fill up with SAF. The alternative would be a ‘book and claim’ system, whereby flights from airports some distance from SAF production facilities could opt instead to buy the fuel remotely as a green credit. This system would avoid fuel having to be delivered around Europe in the early years of the transition when the amounts used are still relatively small, argues Donceel. NGOs and Green MEPs are concerned, however, that it could lead to double accounting, with the amount of SAF used and the emissions saved being counted in both the country of origin and the country of purchase. 

A final decision should emerge before the end of the year, but today’s geo-political climate will not ease negotiations. Any measure that reduces reliance on fossil fuels and offers more energy independence will appeal to some countries. Even the relatively slight impact the legislation will have on the cost of a plane ticket could, however, potentially cause some countries “to chicken out of backing ambitious climate action” says Mirolo. 

All efforts combined to reduce aviation emissions, including SAFs and reforms to the EU Emissions Trading System and Taxation Directive, are forecast to increase airplane ticket prices by 2–15 per cent by 2030, says Donceel. By 2050, SAFs will account for around two-thirds of those additional costs.

A service from the Financial Times