Euronews debates | Will flying ever be green?

The airline sector, crippled by the coronavirus pandemic, is slowly starting to bounce back.

With lockdowns and travel restrictions eliminating swathes of the sector’s customer base for much of 2020 and 2021, some airlines needed urgent government aid to stay afloat.

But as holidaymakers and business travellers make a welcome return to Europe’s airports as the industry comes back to life, it faces an inescapable truth: if the climate goals of the Paris Agreement are to be met, aviation must change.

The sector, which accounts for around 2 to 3 per cent of global emissions, has already pledged to cut its emissions in half by 2050. But how will it manage this?

Could futuristic new technologies such as electric planes be the answer? Or high-grade biofuels? And could a reorganisation of our airports and airlines today provide some short-term gains?

As for travellers themselves, how will the need to drastically cut carbon emissions affect holidaymakers and business travellers in the years to come? Will we ever be able to fly green and guilt-free?

Discussing all this and more will be a panel of top industry figures, at a Euronews debate on Thursday, September 16 at 4pm CEST.

You can send us questions for the panel by tweeting them to @euronewsnext with the hashtag #MobilityWeek or by using the form below.

Here’s a look at three key questions that will be discussed by our panel.

What can be done to achieve a reduction in emissions in the short term?

All businesses are having to face up to the realities of climate change, and are looking at how to adapt and change to play their part in achieving the overarching goal of limiting the global temperature increase this century to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Airlines are no different.

And while there is hope in the advent of new technologies in the future, action is also needed now.

Airlines For Europe (A4E), the largest EU airline association, has set out its roadmap of how a 55 per cent reduction of CO2 emissions from intra-Europe flights by 2030 could be achieved (compared to 1990 levels).

One that could be implemented immediately is improvements in air traffic management (ATM) and aircraft operations, which the group says could lead to emission reductions of 6 per cent.

A4E calls it “the largest potential gain in the short term,” and a “fundamental building block” for achieving the 2050 goals.

In the medium-term, the renewal of airlines’ fleets would also make a big impact in cutting emissions. Newer aircraft consume on average 20-25 percent less fuel than older generations.

However the issue with fleet renewal – especially in the post-COVID business environment – is the cost. Some airlines will be looking to hold onto their cash following a year in which some barely survived.

Will tourist and business travel return to pre-pandemic levels?

Eurocontrol, which provides research and monitoring of flights over Europe, forecasts a return to 2019, pre-pandemic levels of flying by early 2023, with full recovery by 2024 – in the scenario that the vaccine rollouts have quelled the pandemic.

The drop in the number of flights was staggering in 2020 as compared to the previous year, but 2021 has shown signs of an industry in recovery.

But while many holidaymakers have been making the most of relaxed restrictions to go abroad this summer, it is yet to be seen what the longer-term impact of COVID-19 on business travel will be.

That being said, sustainability is high on the agenda for many travellers these days, especially for the younger generation. Airlines will need to start proving their green credentials, as part of what is already a highly competitive fight for customers in a business that has high stakes and tight profit margins.

Some companies are already trying to be seen to lead the way. In 2019, easyJet pledged to offset all the carbon from the fuel used on its flights by investing in projects such as tree planting and renewable energy production.

And the airline has now partnered with Bristol Airport to begin a series of trials aimed at carbon-neutral flying.

New technologies: what will flying look like in the future?

One of the main hopes of achieving the carbon cuts needed is through new, greener technology. Electric cars have gone from being a rarely spotted futuristic marvel to a common sight on many European roads in the space of a few years. Could electric planes follow?

And another key part of the puzzle will be Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs). These biofuels, which can come from plants or waste, could make a “major contribution” and real investment and support would “yield significant first results by 2030, but mostly by 2050” according to A4E.

By improving aircraft and engine technologies, an emission reduction of 37 per cent could be achieved by 2050, and another 34 per cent by using SAFs, A4E’s projections show.

Meet our panel

• Edward Arkwright, Deputy CEO, Groupe Aéroports de Paris (ADP)

• Filip Cornelis, Director for Aviation, European Commission

• Willie Walsh, Director General, International Air Transport Association (IATA)

Watch our panel discuss the future of aviation on this page or on our YouTube channel, on Thursday, September 16 at 4pm CEST.