• Europe wins big on green fuels for planes and ships

    This year, Europe agreed that its planes and ships would run on green fuels in the future. It’s a huge step forward for these polluting sectors, but it risks being undermined by lobby groups wanting to use clean fuels to power cars and trucks and by airlines buying unsustainable biofuels.

    Unless we build revolutionary ships and planes with no emissions by 2030, it’s safe to say that the aircraft and ships we know today will continue to be in operation for years to come. But as the planet continues to burn, can we afford for them to run exclusively on fossil fuels? 

    If the aviation and shipping sectors are to have any chance of survival in a warming world, Europe is in dire need of policies that require a switch from jet oil to cleaner alternatives, such as sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) and green shipping fuels.

    A proposal was submitted by the European Commission in 2021, then followed by two tumultuous years of painful negotiations. But in 2023 Europe finally voted into law the world’s largest green fuel mandates for planes and ships. These laws – known as ReFuelU Aviation and FuelEU Maritime – will be key to cleaning up these polluting sectors, alongside the carbon pollution fees under the emissions trading system. 

    Scaling up new fuels, however, is no easy task. Currently, alternative fuels for ships and planes are for the most part biofuels. Biofuels mainly come from crops which are limited in supply and compete directly with agricultural land, making them unsustainable in most cases. It’s misguided for Europe to think that they can reduce emissions from planes and ships with these types of biofuels. The clean fuel laws excluded certain types of biofuels and other alternatives will be necessary.

    More promising for both shipping and aviation is the use of synthetic fuels. These are produced from green hydrogen with additional renewable electricity and with CO2 and nitrogen captured from ambient air. The problem? Their supply and uptake is very limited. But EU lawmakers – with the help of T&E, allies and big companies – have understood their environmental benefits and included mandates for their uptake in the green fuel laws. 

    Although the percentages may appear miniscule at first (1.2% target for e-kerosene for planes in 2030 and 2% e-fuels for shipping by 2034) these represent huge wins for the climate and for regulation. If the technology is the right one, tiny percentages such as these help to garner financing and support for mass investments in their production in Europe and elsewhere. 

    But the law wasn’t all good. The global shipping industry is also promoting fossil gas as a cleaner alternative, despite T&E exposing that the change could be worse for the climate in the short term. A worrying quarter of all the continent’s ships could run on LNG in 2030, despite their questionable climate benefits, as the EU’s green shipping policies continue to provide the industry with a dirty way out.

    Now that we have green fuel mandates for planes and ships, the next pieces of the puzzle need to fall into place. Financing for green fuels needs to be increased, production plants must be built and airlines and shipping companies need to buy them. This must come hand in hand with the limited uptake and use of biofuels, even though we see companies like Virgin Atlantic, Brussels-based football club Union St Gilles or Coldplay greenwashing their consciences by flying with those types of fuels. 

    And what could be a virtuous circle for the greening of aviation and shipping is also being disrupted by other sectors. In cars, at the behest of the German Liberals and their fuels industry allies, the EU’s phase-out of combustion engines was qualified by an exemption for cars running on e-fuels. In trucks, a similar situation could emerge if conservatives in the European Parliament prevail in final negotiations over the heavy-duty vehicles CO2 regulation. Road transport has a cheaper, cleaner and readily available path to decarbonise through battery electric vehicles. But the oil industry’s attempts to keep combustion engines on the road could divert synthetic fuels away from planes and ships, which have no other options. 2024 will be crucial to limiting this.

    This year, a first stone was laid for the future of green planes and ships. This should not be hampered by competing for synthetic fuels in other modes of transport, nor by the mass uptake of harmful biofuels in plane and ship tanks. We need alternative fuels. It’s crucial we choose the right ones.