Fasten your seatbelts: aviation’s investment flows may well turn green
Could the aviation sector's investment structures turn entirely green? The EU firmly believes €820bn in sustainable cashflows are ready for take off
‘Schiphol Airport to be quieter, cleaner and better.’
This statement from one of the busiest airports in Europe earlier this month pleased many local residents and environmental groups across the Netherlands and wider Benelux region.
However, that was until a court blew the Dutch government’s efforts to reduce emissions and noise pollution the very next day, in response to a wave of complaints from major airlines over flight limits at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport.
But airlines and aircraft manufacturers can be rest assured: the European Commission (EC) has ambitious plans to turn the aviation sector entirely green.
In a draft leaked earlier this year, the EC said it intended to include in the EU taxonomy, a classification system listing activities deemed ‘environmentally sustainable,’ the manufacture, repair and retrofitting of aircraft parts and equipment, renting and leasing, as well as the purchase, financing and operation of aircraft for passengers and goods.
Under the technical screening criteria (TSC), the three categories apply to ‘the aircraft with zero direct (tailpipe) CO2 emissions.’
Aircraft manufacturers can also be stamped green, for instance, if their planes meet lower carbon emissions than the limits set by the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
Then, between January 2028 and December 2032, the planes will have to operate “on 100% blend of sustainable aviation fuels,” the EC explained.
An opportunity for investors to help decarbonise the sector or do risks of greenwashing loom?
The EU taxonomy helps corporations, investors and policymakers channel money into activities that ‘substantially contribute’ to reaching the objectives of the European Green Deal, a set of proposals adopted in 2021 to push the EU to curtail net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 55% by the end of the decade, compared to 1990 levels.
These goals include the sustainable use and protection of water and marine resources, the transition towards a circular economy, pollution prevention and control, and the protection and restoration of biodiversity and ecosystems.
“The Commission has prioritised economic activities and sectors considered most likely to make a substantial contribution to one or more of these four environmental objectives,” a source within the EC told Net Zero Investor, reminding that the bloc’s executive branch was advised by a panel of private and public sector stakeholders, the Platform on Sustainable Finance (PSF).
Roman Mauroschat, aviation policy officer at clean transport campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E), explained that the EU taxonomy distinguished two criteria: "Either the activity is designated as fulfilling the criteria to climate mitigation; or, if these are not available yet, it designates ‘transitional activities,’ corresponding to the best-performing activities in the sector.”
“By including aviation in the taxonomy, the EC aims to boost the ‘green’ financing of the sector,” he stressed.
Airbus pointed that the decarbonisation of air transportation was requiring high levels of investment.
“To meet the EU’s climate ambition and Paris Agreement targets, the aviation industry needs access to sustainable finance,” a company spokesperson said.
In addition, senior analyst at aviation insights provider Ishka Eduardo Mariz noted: “Unlike other transportation sectors, aviation is a hard-to-abate industry with no immediately scalable technological solutions that would allow it to decarbonise.”
“For this reason, aviation financers and manufacturers have advocated for the inclusion of aircraft with best-in-class CO2 emissions to be considered a transitory activity,” he wrote to Net Zero Investor.
€820bn decarbonisation boost
Europe’s air transportation industry eyes net zero emissions by mid-century. As such, SEO Amsterdam Economics (SEO) and Royal Netherlands Aerospace Centre (NLR) found that investment needs, including the premiums paid for new aircraft technologies, air traffic management (ATM) and sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), would amount to €820bn between 2018 and 2050.
As part of its sustainability roadmap, known as “Destination 2050,” the European aviation needs to replace its fleet and introduce, among others, hydrogen-powered single-aisle aircraft, optimised hybrid-electric regional aircraft and small aircraft and rotorcraft.
“Next-generation future aircraft would yield aircraft-level CO2 emissions reduction of 30% to 50% compared to upcoming aircraft types,” the plan highlights, along with improvements in ATM and aircraft operations.
Supplies of SAFs may increase from 3 million tonnes in 2030 to 32 million tonnes in 2050, equal to 83% of the total kerosene consumption, it adds.
Guillaume Faury, the head of Airbus, warned during a speech at Washington’s Aero Club in February of the importance to maintain a fair competition between industry players, according to media reports.
At a time when the US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) plans to allocate $370bn in clean energy investments, including incentives for SAFs and tax credits for the production of clean hydrogen, he fears that this could draw business into the United States and slow the EU’s decarbonisation efforts when “business as usual” is no longer an option.
“It is key that air transport is included in the EU taxonomy to support the full decarbonisation of the air transport industry, reach net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 and reduce CO2 emissions for European flights by 55% by 2030,” the Airbus spokesperson stressed in an email to Net Zero Investor.
The plane maker intends to curtail its Scopes 1 and 2 industrial emissions by up to 63% by the end of the decade, and reduce the GHG emissions intensity generated by its commercial aircraft in service by 46% five years later.
Although the integration of aviation in the EU taxonomy has sparked concerns amid environmental groups, Mariz is confident that the EC’s delegated act will provide institutions with another reason to bet on the most fuel-efficient aircraft types.
“Perhaps more importantly, this will create a new investment dynamic for the asset class and steer it towards increasingly greener investments,” he added.
“The proposed TSC is quite clear that the EU taxonomy alignment for these investments should be limited to the extent they replaced a non-compliant aircraft of similar size.”
Mauroschat however warned that under the draft criteria, “aircraft using fossil fuels but burning a little less jet fuel will be labelled as taxonomy compliant.”
In his view, activities that can substantially contribute to emissions cuts are not available yet.
“It defeats the purpose of the taxonomy which is to push the industry side to make a technological leap,” he argued, adding that these additional sources of investments would allow aviation sector players to extend their fleets and the routes they offer.
“We need a revolution in aviation by massively investing in green fuels like e-kerosene, or in hydrogen propulsion technology.”
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Mariz acknowledged that European financial institutions would need to manage their exposure to aviation in order to maintain “a good green asset ratio, which in some cases could entail reducing aviation lending for certain types of assets or transactions.”
T&E, which left the PSF in September 2022 “over a lack of independence,” estimates that 100% of order books by Ryanair, easyJet and Wizz Air could be considered ‘best in class’ when they buy new generation aircraft in the years to come.
“For the time being, the majority of Europe’s airlines’ fleets don’t qualify as ‘best in class’. But their future planes will,” Mauroschat claimed.
For Mariz, good alternative infrastructure like cross border high-speed rail remains the biggest incentive to discourage short-haul flying.
“If the EU taxonomy succeeds in increasing the financing costs of aircraft, then that should contribute to the increasingly higher costs paid by airlines and, ultimately, the prices passengers pay.”
“However, the inclusion or exclusion of an activity from the EU taxonomy is far from a demand-side measure,” he added.
But Mauroschat expects the EC’s decision to open the door for other sectors to ask to benefit from green investments.
“By setting the bar extremely low, other carbon-intensive industries will demand to be given the same treatment,” he stated. “We can already see it in shipping, where the industry has been given lax taxonomy criteria too.”
According to T&E, some existing ship designs powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG) could be eligible for a green label immediately under the EC’s new criteria.
The draft delegated act is now open for feedback from stakeholders until May 3.
“There are still chances that the delegated act will not get approved,” Mauroschat pointed out. “The Parliament can act by simple majority and the Council by qualified majority voting,” he stressed.
“Everything will come down to all members of the Parliament who believe that the taxonomy should remain the beacon of what is truly sustainable," he concluded.
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