European Union Sets Course for Decarbonizing Aviation

By Matt Neistein

Published May 1, 2023

Read Time: 3 mins


If global aviation were a country, it would be one of the top 10 carbon emitters in the world.

Last week, the European Union laid out a plan to significantly decarbonize its aviation sector by requiring suppliers to add sustainable aviation fuel to their products in increasing amounts for the next quarter-century.

The ReFuelEU Aviation proposal, which must still be formally adopted by the EU Parliament and Council, is projected to cut two-thirds of carbon emissions by 2050, according to the union.

“This political agreement is a turning point for European aviation, putting it on a solid pathway towards decarbonization,” said Adina Valean, European Commissioner for Transport. “Shifting to sustainable aviation fuels will improve our energy security, while reducing reliance on fossil fuel imports.”

Among the requirements:

Sustainable aviation fuel must make up at least 2 percent of available fuel inventory at EU airports by 2025. Suppliers must increase that percentage in five-year benchmarks until it reaches 70 percent by 2050.

Airlines departing EU airports may refuel “only with the fuel necessary for the flight,” which decreases carbon emissions related to carrying extra weight. The rule also discourages “tankering,” when aircraft operators take on more fuel than necessary to avoid refueling at a destination airport where fuel may be more expensive.

British Airways’ ‘Better World’ aircraft is an A320neo with a special blue livery that serves as an ambassador for its sustainability program of the same name. (Image courtesy of British Airways)

EU airports must provide the proper fueling infrastructure to accept the increasing amount of sustainable fuel. The new rules allow synthetic blends of fuel from residual agricultural products, forestry products or hydrogen, but not from food crops.

The aviation sector accounts for about 2.5 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, according to the World Economic Forum. The ReFuelEU Aviation proposal is just one of many public and private efforts around the globe to significantly cut back on the industry’s carbon footprint.

Last year, Pittsburgh International Airport announced a strategic partnership to explore alternative fuels with locally based natural gas exploration, production, midstream, and technology company CNX Resources Corp.

“Carbon reduction will impact the entire aviation industry. We understand that action is needed, which is why we have taken steps toward exploring alternative fuels through our partnership with CNX,” said Vince Gastgeb, senior vice president, Corporate & Government Relations. “We believe coalitions and partnerships will be the best way to reach an actionable and realistic plan to meet climate goals.”

The EU’s new rules are part of its “Fit for 55” legislative package, which aims to cut overall carbon emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030, a significant step toward its goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2050.

Maintaining a solid economic footing for the aviation industry during the transition to SAF was a key element of the EU’s plan, which it says creates a “level playing field” and reduces the union’s reliance on imported fossil fuels.

“These kinds of measures help make Europe a front-runner in the production of innovative clean fuels, globally,” Valean said. “We estimate that the SAF market will create more than 200,000 additional jobs in the EU, mainly in the renewables sector.”

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