22 January 2021
Decarbonising transport

By Clara de la Torre, Deputy Director-General, DG Climate Action, European Commission
Winter 2020

The ability to fly was for centuries one of humankind's greatest aspirations. With the invention of the aeroplane and the advent of civil aviation, that dream became a reality.

Air travel connected people across continents and opened up new horizons for many. Yet, as aviation has expanded, so it has become clear beyond any doubt that climate change is not only real, but an existential threat. Heatwaves, extreme drought and fierce storms are already making themselves felt and underline the urgent need to take action to preserve the health, prosperity, and well-being of people in Europe and around the world.

In the EU, this urgency to lead the global fight against climate change is now clear. We are developing climate policies in line with the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global temperature increase well below 2°C and pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C. In December 2019, the Commission adopted its Communication on the European Green Deal with the objective of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. More recently still, the European Commission's plan on Stepping up Europe's 2030 climate ambition sets an economy-wide greenhouse gas net emissions reduction target of at least 55% by 2030 compared to 19901, with all sectors of the economy contributing their fair share to the efforts.

Transport is the only sector of the economy where greenhouse gas emissions have gone up since 1990 and continue to grow. As such, we must achieve a 90% reduction in emissions across road, rail, aviation and waterborne transport by 2050 to achieve climate-neutrality. Aviation cannot be left out of this equation. In 2017, CO2 emissions from the sector accounted for 3.8%2 of the European Economic Area’s total greenhouse gas emissions. While efforts to decarbonise are underway, we must redouble and sustain them to achieve the climate goals of the European Union. Our progress must outpace the sustained growth in air traffic, which increased by 60% between 2005 and 20173, and is likely to increase again once the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis subside.

To fulfil its Green Deal commitments, the Commission is now working on a proposal to revise the EU Emissions Trading System for aviation. This will see a move towards increased auctioning so that we can make the carbon price a more effective signal in the sector as well as allowing for a fairer system among operators and implementing the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). Further policy measures such as energy taxation and the ReFuelEU Aviation initiative are being considered as part of the range of measures needed for the sector to decarbonise and better internalise external environmental costs.

It is clear that the aviation sector will need to scale up efforts to improve the efficiency of aircrafts, their operations and to increase the use of sustainable alternative fuels. Such fuels are a key to the decarbonisation strategy. Aviation needs to contribute to the decarbonisation of transport in a smart way, preserving the competitiveness of European industry and satisfying the mobility demands of citizens. Civil aviation has been one of the major catalysts of the integrated European single market, territorial cohesion and a more inclusive society. The industry represents an important share of GDP and jobs in Europe and is indispensable for the competitiveness of the European economy as a whole. Aviation is part of a wider mobility system, which needs to be more efficient, to become more interoperable and to embrace the digital transformation.

The European Union's role in decarbonisation is to drive innovation through strong incentives. The Horizon Europe framework paves the way for aviation research and development in crucial fields from hydrogen, electrification, advanced airframes and digitalisation to sustainable aviation fuels, green airports and improved efficiency both on the ground and in the air. The "Partnership on Clean Aviation", envisaged under Horizon Europe, aims to accelerate the development and demonstration of integrated aircraft technologies towards deep decarbonisation while ensuring safety and security.

Non-CO2 climate impacts generated by aviation must also be factored in. The effect of these emissions on temperature increases is around double that of CO2 emissions according to a recently published scientific study4.

In Europe, we are the beneficiaries of a world-leading aviation industry, and it is here in Europe that the industry is leading the way in decarbonisation. The global momentum towards a more sustainable aviation sector offers massive commercial opportunities to the first movers and lead innovators that put their businesses on a new path to sustainable growth.


We are determined to drive this transition. The European Green Deal together with the recovery package and Horizon Europe will support the EU aviation industry in adopting a new model of inclusive growth. This will bring with it a true recovery from the current COVID-19 crisis and its severe impact on the sector. In terms of financing, an impressive 37% of Next Generation EU's budget will be spent directly on our European Green Deal objectives. Our efforts must now focus on ensuring investment and disruptive technologies emerge in time for Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. This would be beneficial to European industry in the face of fierce global competition.

The efforts of the EU and its Member States to reduce aviation emissions extend globally to the International Civil Aviation Organization, where negotiations on adopting a Long-Term Aspirational Goal to reduce of CO2 emissions from international aviation are underway. As was done by the International Maritime Organization, this process should be informed by science and be guided by the temperature goals agreed under the Paris Agreement.

EU action alone will not suffice. The drivers of climate change and biodiversity loss are global and not bound by national borders. That is why the EU is stepping up and cooperating with our partners to achieve increased climate ambition, economic prosperity and sustainable growth. Reaching climate neutrality in Europe and worldwide will not be easy. It will require enormous investment in technologies, business models, skills, infrastructure and changes in behaviour. Yet, with careful management, the green aviation transition can be of help to modernise our economy, making it innovative, circular and resilient enough to maintain its global competitiveness in the years to come, and this leaving no one behind.

1. https://ec.europa.eu/clima/sites/clima/files/eu-climate-action/docs/com_2030_ctp_en.pdf
2. Data from https://ec.europa.eu/transport/facts-fundings/statistics/pocketbook-2019_en
3. Data from https://ec.europa.eu/info/law/better-regulation/have-your-say/initiatives/12303-ReFuelEU-Aviation-Sustainable-Aviation-Fuels
4. Lee et al., 2020. The contribution of global aviation to anthropogenic climate forcing for 2000 to 2018. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.atmosenv.2020.117834