Technology improvements unlikely to compensate for emissions from growth in European flights, says Eurocontrol

Technology improvements unlikely to compensate for emissions from growth in European flights, says Eurocontrol | Eurocontrol

(photo: Shai Dolev)

Thu 19 Dec 2019 – The European aviation industry has made big strides in improving its fuel efficiency, says Eurocontrol. However, it believes decarbonising aviation is arguably the greatest challenge facing the sector, at a time of increasing scrutiny from European governments and climate action groups, with countries like Germany and the United Kingdom legislating for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Eurocontrol estimates fuel efficiency on departure flights from within the 44-State ECAC area was 4.49 litres litres per 100 passenger kms in 2005 and had improved to around 3.40 in 2017. However, it is unlikely that future improvements in technology will compensate for the emissions from a forecast 53% growth in flights within Europe by 2040, it adds. Eurocontrol’s Head of Environment, Andrew Watt (right), says the industry needs to deliver a completely new aviation system if it is to meet 2050 decarbonisation targets.


Eurocontrol, Europe’s air navigation operations and services organisation, estimates an annual average fuel efficiency improvement of 2.1% between 2006 and 2016, with fuel burn per 100 passenger km flown of less than 3 litres for the latest commercial jet aircraft. This is comparable, if not better, than most family cars, Watt told the recent Aviation Carbon 2019 conference in London.


The steep rate of improvement in fuel efficiency since 2010 is due to deliveries of new, fuel-efficient aircraft types, says Eurocontrol. However, cautioned Watt, “What we see going out to 2040 is that fuel efficiency should continue to improve but at the moment it’s difficult to predict as to what degree it will go below 3 litres because we do not know what aircraft will be coming off the production lines.”


The last of the new generation of aircraft to enter into service will be the Boeing 777X early in the coming next decade. No firm plans have been announced for an airliner of the generation beyond that which would be expected to deliver a further 15-20% reduction in fuel burn and emissions. Watt said it was likely the Boeing 737 MAX, 777X and 787, plus the Airbus A320neo, A330neo and A350, would still be flying in 2050.


By 2040, Eurocontrol forecasts an average fuel efficiency of 2.64 litres per 100 passenger kms if average annual technology improvements of 1.16% are incorporated into new aircraft deliveries.


Eurocontrol has based its long-term European aviation CO2 forecast on traffic growth, which has climbed to around 11 million flights per year. In a high-growth scenario, which assumes dynamic global economic growth with barriers to trade reducing, this could reach 19.5 million flights (+84%) by 2040. The base business-as-usual ‘regulation and growth' scenario, with a fairly heavily regulated aviation system but retaining a 'licence to grow', shows 16.2 million flights in 2040, 53% above current levels. The low 'fragmenting world' scenario, with increased trade barriers and sluggish GDP growth leading to stalling air traffic growth, could see flights at not much more than current levels, around 11.9 million flights, estimates Eurocontrol.


The most likely, said Watt, is around 16 million European flights per year. “This is handling around 55,000 flights per day in the European system, which is going to be a real challenge to deliver,” he warned. 


European aviation CO2 emissions have risen from 150 million tonnes (Mt) in 2005 to around 180 Mt in 2017. Based on the three traffic scenarios, and depending on how aircraft technologies develop, the high forecast shows CO2 emissions in 2040 ranging from 316 to 366 Mt, a base forecast of 234-268 Mt and a low forecast of 157-176 Mt in which emissions remain stable to those of today.


Aviation CO2 emissions by European countries for the first nine months of 2019 have included a fall of 23% in the case of Iceland, as a result of the collapse of its second biggest airline WOW, and 3.6% in Sweden because of a decrease in domestic traffic due to the Flygskam movement and other factors at play, believes Watt. On the other hand, Austria has seen a big increase, 15.1%, in its aviation emissions, which Watt attributes to Ryanair's take-over of Laudamotion and subsequent ramping up of operations in Vienna, and Austrian Airlines swapping out turboprops for bigger Airbus A319/320 aircraft that burn more fuel on the same sectors.


The growing response in Europe from governments to the climate issue, for example net-zero emissions legislation in Germany and the UK, along with more active and vocal public opposition, has considerable significance for the aviation industry, said Watt. Airline investors too were becoming concerned about climate change impacts and saw a sector that was both a generator of CO2 and vulnerable to its climate effects through changes in weather.


Watt said the Eurocontrol Performance Review Report for 2018 showed air traffic management (ATM) measures can influence just 6% of airspace users fuel burn. The European Air Traffic Management Master Plan looks to reduce that to below 3% by 2035, he added. 


“ATM is able to do things that would apply to all flights overnight. So whereas aircraft fleets may be rolled over a 20-to-30-year period and with just an expected gradual introduction of sustainable aviation fuels, we can implement measures to reduce emissions much more quickly. 


“For example, in 2002, we introduced six new flight levels above 29,000 feet for all aircraft with the correct equipment and a trained crew, and that led to an instantaneous improvement in fuel efficiency of 5%. That's what ATM can do − relatively rarely but nevertheless make big improvements.”


He reported free route airspace, which has been implemented gradually since 2014 and has saved an estimated 2.6 Mt CO2, will be implemented above 29,000 feet across all of Europe by 2022. It will enable airlines to choose what is the most efficient routing for its operations. Eurocontrol is also working with industry on developing a joint action plan to implement continuous climb and descent operations in a wider deployment across Europe. “If we can do that perfectly, which we know is not going to be the case, we could potentially save over one million tonnes of CO2 a year.”


A future architecture study of the European airspace published by the European Commission, SESAR-JU and Eurocontrol this year showed overall savings of 30-60 Mt CO2 could be delivered by ATM between 2019 and 2035, he said.


Watt believes the five most important actions required to decarbonise the European aviation sector were:

  • Change the European ATM network;
  • Fund rapid transition to sustainable aviation fuels (SAF);
  • Develop highly-efficient, large-capacity short-haul aircraft;
  • Undertake a total fleet renewal by 2050 so that aircraft can only fly if they are wholly or partly electric, of for long-haul flights only use SAF; and
  • Bridge the gap to electrification of short-haul aircraft through hybridisation of the fleet.


“We're at a tipping point where we are being driven from outside the industry to think outside the box and we need to deliver a completely new aviation system by 2050,” he said.




Eurocontrol Think Paper: ‘The aviation network – Decarbonisation issues’




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