Europe wins big on green fuels for planes and ships

9 January 2024

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.

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