EU Policy. Can Single European Sky slash aviation emissions by 10%?

Christophe Ena / AP
Christophe Ena / AP Copyright Christophe Ena/Copyright 2019 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Christophe Ena/Copyright 2019 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Marta Pacheco
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Air traffic management measures can play a key role in decreasing emissions but the uptake of sustainable aviation fuels and a clear airspace design between civil and military space is crucial, according to aviation experts.


Aviation players were divided on the extent air traffic management measures (ATM) may have on curbing climate change during an aviation conference held in Brussels today (April 9).

EU data estimates that civil aviation accounts for 13% of total CO2 emissions from EU transport, and new aviation rules designed to improve network management of EU airspace — dubbed the Single European Sky (SES) — foresee a reduction of 10% on the environmental impact caused by aviation.

The SES was launched in 1999 to improve the performance of ATM and air navigation services through better integration of European airspace. In practice, it should result in reduced flight times — because of shorter paths and fewer delays — and in lower flight costs and aircraft emissions.

In September 2020, the European Commission adopted a revised version of the SES to deliver ATM measures in line with the European Green Deal. After over a decade of negotiations, EU lawmakers and the Belgian Presidency informally agreed in March new EU rules with binding targets and incentives to optimise flights and cut CO2 emissions, with the European Parliament Transport Committee backing today the provisional agreement, which will be taken up by the next EU mandate.

“I’m 100% sure that the 10% reduction in emissions will be achieved through the SES,”Andreas Boschen, executive director of a public private partnership co-funded by the EU to boost research in the aviation sector, known as SESAR 3, told the conference, held under the auspices of Belgium’s presidency of the EU Council.

However, Boschen said ATM is not the only game changer and called on a holistic approach combining a range of measures like scaling-up sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs).

“ATM is something that is just starting to look how to contribute to decarbonisation,” said Luc Laveyne, senior advisor on ATM and innovation at Airports Council International Europe.

Luc Tytgat, executive director at the EU Aviation Safety Agency said “10% is not exactly what we’re looking for — we wanted much more”. He suggested creating an oversight monitoring mechanism to monitor whether the 10% reduction is achieved.

“We need to show the aviation community is serious to contribute to this 10% reduction in aviation emissions,” said Tytgat.

Johann Friedrich Colsman, director general aviation, German federal ministry of transport and digital infrastructure told the conference that ATM measures can contribute to emissions reductions but noted that use of e-fuels in aircraft could make a “much bigger contribution”.

Colsman added that the goal to achieve a SES is ongoing but talked about a divide due to the sanctions on airspace given the geopolitical situation — a view backed by most of the speakers in the room.

“Planes need to do enormous detours, if the sanctions end, this would be the single most effective measure with a significant contribution to climate,” said Colsman.

Carlos López de la Osa, aviation technical manager at the campaign group Transport & Environment told Euronews improved ATM measures are not the silver bullet to decarbonise aviation.

“We welcome all efficiency gains, but the most optimistic efficiency improvements from ATM measures, estimated at 10%, are difficult to attain, and would still leave us very far from zero emissions,” said Osa.

In order to reach net-zero in aviation, Osa suggests, the EU should focus efforts on SAFs and demand reduction policies, which he considers to be more effective in cutting emissions.

On the other hand, non-CO2 effects, especially contrails, account for more than half of aviation's climate impact, Osa added, noting that a more efficient ATM system is essential to tackle these.

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