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Research and Innovation

How innovation in ports and airports is helping to tackle European climate goals


Publication date
Green Deal Projects Support Office

At the heart of the European Union’s commitment to global climate action under the Paris Agreement is the aim to be a climate-neutral economy by 2050. To achieve this ambitious vision, large reduction in emissions need to be effectuated in high polluting sectors. The transport sector accounts for approximately 25% of all EU greenhouse gas emissions, therefore investment in innovative solutions within this domain is a critical avenue for change.

Breaking down the EU’s transport emissions, 13.5% is attributed to the maritime sector and 14.4% to aviation. This is significantly less than road transport but notoriously difficult to abate in comparison. This emphasises the need for greater investment and innovation in these two sub-sectors to facilitate decarbonisation of the fuels and infrastructure needed to support the sector.

The aviation and maritime sectors are vital contributors to the European economy and need to be maintained whilst undergoing a green transformation. Although largely driven by climate targets, the impact on health and need for greater resilience to global events are further drivers for urgent change in both sectors.

To support this, extensive research and development efforts have focused on cleaner planes and vessels, but recent innovations in European ports and airports are emerging alongside evolving policies and are poised to define what sustainable transport will look like in the future.

Low carbon fuels: a path to sustainable transportation

Central to the transformation of the aviation and shipping sector is the adoption of low and zero carbon fuels, which can substantially reduce the emissions that contribute to climate change.

Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) are the low-carbon alternative to conventional fuel in the aviation sector and can be produced through a variety of processes, all with the potential to significantly shrink the carbon footprint of flights. Examples range from bio-SAF (derived from plants and organic waste) to e-SAF (synthesised using renewable electricity and captured carbon), and the world’s first piloted flight of liquid-hydrogen powered electric aircraft in Slovenia shows that hydrogen is gaining traction as a potentially emission-free aviation fuel for smaller aircraft.

Meanwhile, the maritime industry is undergoing its own transformation. Emerging options include methanol, ammonia, hydrogen, and biofuels. Methanol has the potential to be made from waste resources or from renewable electricity, piquing industry interest - Maersk launched the world’s first methanol powered container vessel in Sept 2023. Ammonia, like hydrogen, emits zero carbon emissions when burned, holding promise as the clean energy carriers of the future. Additionally, drop-in biofuels such as hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) are gaining traction for their ability to offer an immediate reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and are one of the only alternative fuels currently produced at scale.

Policy pioneers

European policies are going beyond global benchmarks and are steering the course toward sustainable transportation, driving a focus on the use of low carbon fuels in both aviation and shipping.

In shipping, the global benchmark for emissions reductions is set by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) Strategy on GHG Emissions from Ships. This was revised in the summer of 2023 and raises the level of ambition of emission reduction from its previous iteration. It includes indicative targets of 20% reduction by 2030 (striving for 30%), and to achieve net-zero emissions on or around 2050. Emissions pricing and a goal-based marine fuel standard are among the suggested measures, with consideration for impacts on developing countries.

The parralel standard for aviation is CORSIA, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, a global effort led by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to offset and reduce CO2 emissions from international flights. Airlines can voluntarily purchase carbon credits to neutralise their emissions, with a mandatory phase starting in 2027. The goal is to maintain carbon-neutral growth compared to 2020 levels, addressing aviation's impact on climate change through emission reduction and offsetting measures.

The EU is striving to exceed these international standards, characterised by a recent set of proposals called the Fit for 55 package. Combined, these proposals aim to achieve a 55% reduction in the EU’s net GHG emissions by 2030. This introduces ambitious low carbon fuel targets for both shipping and aviation:

  • FuelEU Maritime: this mandates vessel carbon intensity reduction targets beyond IMO measures and encourages shore power use from 2030 onwards. Further, it requires 2% of fuel (averaged annually) to come from renewable fuels of non-biological origin (RFNBOs) from 2034.
  • RefuelEU Aviation: this aims to increase SAFs' use, targeting 2% of jet fuel consumption by a 2025. Additionally, the SAF Mandate ensures SAF availability at all European airports by a 2030 and are blended into conventional jet fuel at a rate of at least 5%. These policies are poised to significantly reduce aviation carbon emissions.

Further to the above, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), the EU’s primary mechanism to reduce GHG emissions in all sectors, has been extended to shipping in 2023. The ETS works by putting a cap on the maximum amount of carbon that can be released across the EU. The emissions caps progressively reduce to align with climate goals, and companies are required to monitor and report their emissions, meeting their own individual targets by purchasing and surrendering ETS allowances for CO2 on an open market. The aviation sector has been part of the EU ETS since 2012, but this year a separate ETS has also been created to cover maritime transport in 2023, targeting larger shipping vessels over 5,000 gross tons.

Aviation and shipping will therefore face challenging targets for reductions in carbon intensity in the coming years and are looking for novel methods of energy delivery to achieve this.

High-profile projects: leading the charge

Airports and ports across Europe have spearheaded ground-breaking research initiatives that address the ambitious policy goals, funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

The OLGA (hOlistic & Green Airports) project focuses on reducing the aviation sector's environmental footprint. It pioneers solutions to lower CO2 emissions, enhance energy efficiency, preserve biodiversity, and improve air quality and waste management, involving the entire aviation value chain.  Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport serves as the frontrunner of the project with partners Air France taking part in the demonstration of decarbonisation scenarios. For OLGA project, 2024 is going to be of paramount importance, with the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris being an opportunity to showcase the work carried out in the project, respectively the waste prevention systems implemented at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport as well as the allocation of advanced sustainable aviation fuel to various flights operated by Air France. The Milan Malpensa, Zagreb and Cluj airports are also involved in the project in different demonstrative and supportive capacities. The recent workshop organised at Cluj Avram Iancu International Airport in Romania focused on scaling up the OLGA waste management strategies and technologies, including waste valorisation, waste2energy (e.g. from waste to biomethane and its use in green mobility) and circular economy.

Similarly, the Stargate project, with over 30 initiatives, is designed to investigate new technologies and implementations aimed at decarbonising European airports. It champions sustainable aviation at Brussels Airport with a focus on SAF and the hydrogen fuelling of taxiing and ground handling equipment. Recent developments include the operation of a historic SAF flight with a 38% blend of sustainably sourced SAF. Stargate is also in the process of permitting a proof-of-concept hydrogen fuelling and hydrogen ground support equipment (GSE) facility at BRUcargo in Brussels Airport. They have also developed a catalogue that provides airport with an overview of actions they can take to stimulate SAF uptake.

In ports, the PIONEERS project sets a goal of transforming ports into sustainable green hubs by 2050, in line with the EU’s Green Deal objectives. The project is actively testing 19 demonstration projects in the ports of Antwerp-Bruges, Barcelona, Constanta and Venlo across 4 pillars clean energy production, storage and supply, sustainable port infrastructure, modal shift and flow optimisation and digital transformation. On a strategic level, PIONEERS is formulating a Green Port Master Plan providing a concrete vision of a climate-neutral port by 2050 including a roadmap on how to get there. Recently, PIONEERS unveiled the world's inaugural hydrogen dual fuel straddle carrier in collaboration with partners. The dual fuel technology has the potential to substitute up to 70% of diesel with hydrogen on carriers, aiming for a complete transition to 100% hydrogen usage in future carriers. Other demonstrations in the project are featured in the OCEAN series portraying how ports act as drivers of the energy transition, decarbonisation and environmental sustainability.

Green critical infrastructure: building for the future

The journey towards decarbonisation in the transportation sector hinges on more than just innovative fuels—it necessitates a fundamental shift in supporting infrastructure.

Examples of this include optimised logistics facilities, safe and efficient fuel storage, stringent safety protocols, and sustainable buildings utilising eco-friendly materials and energy-efficient systems. Additionally, embracing efficient delivery systems and prioritising sustainability across all facets of infrastructure are essential to creating greener supply chains.

There are EU policies that support the development for sustainable infrastructure for decarbonisation as the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulation (AFIR) which mandates minimum infrastructure requirements to serve the rollout of alternative fuels such as electricity and hydrogen. For airports and ports, this ensures they can provide alternative power supply to fossil fuelled engines of vessels berthed in ports or stationary aircraft on the airport tarmac.

The previously mentioned projects have also made commitments in the realm of developing greener critical infrastructure. Some of the notable results of the OLGA project thus far is the planned installation of solar panels on passenger jet bridges. This can generate up to 400Hz of electrical energy needed by aircraft and thus replace kerosene or diesel used in existing power units in the aircraft or on the ground, reducing CO2 and noise emissions.

Airports need to ensure that the supply of SAFs and hydrogen are both robust and reliable. Stargate have opened a dedicated NATO pipeline to ensure consistent SAF supply, has been researching innovative ways to help decarbonise ground handling activities. Partners DHL are switching to electric vehicles used to load and unload air cargo containers and pallets, and electric hydrant fuel dispensers have been extensively tested over 2200 refuellings to gain insight on the best operating parameters for their charging infrastructure, prompting Skytanking to order their own to put into operation in early 2024. Emissions, engine noise and air quality – both for the surroundings and for employees - is set to see a significant improvement as a result of this switch.

It is hoped that the results of these specific projects will allow for replications of the same principles and methods at other airports around Europe and taking it far beyond the initially envisioned scope.

Navigating the future

Innovation in ports and airports is pivotal to Europe's pursuit of climate goals. The progressive policies will drive investments into low carbon fuels and the supporting infrastructure that comes with it, but investments need to be targeted in solutions that have been proven to work. Research projects like OLGA, PIONEERS and Stargate provide that evidence base, reshaping the transportation landscape and offering a more sustainable future.

The path to decarbonisation may be challenging, but visionary research, innovative technologies, dedicated initiatives, and essential infrastructure lay the foundation for a sustainable, climate-friendly future in European transport.

Despite the challenges, expectations run high that continued investments and developments will propel us closer to achieving these vital goals.

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