Aviation needs to change to become more sustainable. In October 2023, a European Union (EU) regulation called “ReFuelEU Aviation” was approved. It is a flagship initiative to make the aviation sector less polluting. Environment is a priority for EASA and, under ReFuelEU, the role of the Agency in decarbonising aviation was expanded.
Dietmar Bloemen, EASA Sustainable Aviation Programme Manager, explained to EASA Light how this important regulation came to be, its highlights and what we can we expect next on the aviation journey towards more sustainability.
Can you explain the background of the ReFuelEU Aviation regulation?
In 2019, the EU presented the Green Deal Initiative to make the continent climate neutral by 2050. This led to further actions, for example, the “Fit for 55” regulatory package proposal to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. The ReFuelEU Aviation regulatory initiative was linked to this “Fit for 55” package and a concrete legislative proposal was made for it in 2021 by the European Commission, which was then finally published as regulation in October 2023.
While working on the ReFuelEU Aviation regulatory proposal, the legislators decided to involve EASA by entrusting us with certain tasks as regards the monitoring, reporting and analysis of the use of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF). For EASA such an involvement comes naturally as we are an Aviation Agency and are already very much anchored into the environmental business, but also because we are well placed as a technical neutral body to receive and assess sensitive aviation data. Throughout the legislative process we have provided technical support to the European Commission.
Why is ReFuelEU a milestone for aviation?
ReFuelEU Aviation is a very important policy instrument that the EU will use to decarbonise aviation in Europe by promoting the use of SAF. Today, SAF is very expensive for airlines and the availability is very limited. So, it's a real milestone because EU is the first region in the world to establish a regulatory framework that will help the production of SAF, the delivery of SAF to airlines and therefore, it will also create a market that will increase the volumes. And if you can increase volumes, the prices will go down.
You mention SAF because that's a big component of ReFuelEU. What about other sources of energy?
Decarbonising will probably need several solutions. It's not only going to be SAF. Other solutions could include operational improvements, the use of market-based measures, but also the use of novel green technologies. And here we think, for example, of a potential hydrogen propelled aircraft, or aircraft running on batteries, or in the hybrid form using batteries.
The legislators already wanted to take this into account in the ReFuelEU regulation by ensuring that airports would start to report to EASA on their projects to establish the infrastructure at their airports. So, not only for SAF but also for hydrogen as well as electricity. It's a complete picture. It primarily covers SAF, but the elements to look into the novel technologies are also there.
What is EASA already doing under ReFuelEU?
Since the mandate has been given and the regulation has been adopted, we are now at full speed in terms of preparing ourselves for our role in the legislation. So that includes, for example, setting up a digital infrastructure because our role is very much linked to reporting of data. We are currently working very hard, together with various contractors, on the digital infrastructure.
We have to prepare ourselves also for the analysis of the data that comes in. We are really ramping up, also ensuring that staff are available and that we are ready by the first applicability dates of the regulation.
One of the main tasks trusted to EASA is an Annual Report. What will it cover and what impact will it have in making aviation more sustainable?
The Annual Report is a cornerstone of the legislation for various reasons. It will show SAF usage by the airlines, aggregated levels of fossil fuel usage and also data on projects on hydrogen and electricity, as mentioned. It will contain information on how the SAF market is developing and on the prices of SAF and fossil fuels.
The report will serve several purposes. First of all, it will be used by the Member States to verify whether airlines and airports under their oversight are complying with the regulatory elements. Based on the EASA report, non-compliance may be determined by Member States, and stakeholders may be subject to a penalty.
Last but not least, the report will also inform the European Commission and the EU Council and the European Parliament. Because it is important to verify whether the elements adopted in the ReFuelEU legislation are effective.
There is also the EU labelling scheme. Can you give us a brief overview?
The EU labelling scheme is an initiative that will inform passengers about the sustainable choices they can make when booking their flight tickets.
Today, on several booking platforms, when you book a flight, you will see already the projected CO2 emissions for that flight. You can start comparing flights based on the environmental performance. The legislators noticed that today we see a big variety of methods on how to forecast the CO2 emissions of a flight. There are huge differences. This may lead to a lack of credibility. And what the legislators have decided to do is to entrust this CO2 footprint assessment to a regulatory body, which is EASA.
As of 2025, on a voluntary basis, airlines may apply to EASA to obtain a label for the flights that they are offering and then EASA will provide the expected CO2 footprints for those flights. It's an information tool but can also act as an incentivisation tool for airlines to try to offer the most green flights possible.
Are there other aspects you would like to highlight in relation to ReFuelEU and EASA’s work towards more sustainable aviation?
ReFuelEU is a real push forward towards decarbonisation. But it's also a starting point, because the legislation is going to be reviewed in 2027 to include potential further elements.
To give you one example: aviation has to deal with the effects of the non-CO2 emissions. Whereas ReFuelEU really targeted CO2 emissions, we know from scientific research that there are also other greenhouse gases, typically referred to as non-CO2 emissions. This is another important challenge that EASA has to tackle together with our stakeholders and that we can link to the Refuel EU legislation, because one of the elements that we will start monitoring will be the levels of aromatics in fossil fuels. Aromatics are chemical components that by attracting moisture, can create cloud contrails when being emitted from aircraft engines. These cloud contrails may have a warming effect because they entrap the heat of the earth's surface.
EASA considers this also as a very important task to work on in the future. EASA’s role will be to further inform the discussion concerning environmental aviation policy making.