Fathom is excited to get to grips with this question in a new research project, set to begin imminently and last for twelve months. The goal of this research, in partnership with the European Climate Foundation, is to explore different paths to decarbonising European aviation and ask how these can best support wider policy objectives, such as enhancing the region’s economic competitiveness, creating jobs and strengthening energy security.

Brian Davidson
Head of Climate Economics

These are top-table political issues as voters head to the polls in the EU and UK. The European Council will adopt its high-level five-year plan, known as the ‘strategic agenda’, shortly after the elections on 6-9 June. EU leaders have already identified energy and competitiveness as key priorities, alongside security and defence. Similarly, the surest route to economic growth is the main battleground for Labour and the Conservatives heading into the UK election on 4 July.

To assess how decarbonising aviation supports these vital goals, we first need to unpack the key decarbonisation technologies. Most aviation sector roadmaps include a major role for sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), especially in the short term. The benefit of SAF is that it is ‘ready-to-go’, and compatible with existing aircraft engines and fuel systems; but there are questions marks regarding its suitability as a long-term solution. SAF is not a truly ‘zero emission’ solution, it relies on biomass/waste feedstocks that may be limited, and e-fuels — widely considered the greenest SAF — may also need vast amounts of low-carbon energy.

There is also growing interest in zero emission aircraft (ZEA), planes powered by electricity or green hydrogen, which offer the promise of greater emission reductions, and lower overall strain on energy and resources. The flagship example is the Airbus ZEROe programme, aiming to bring a hydrogen airliner into commercial service by 2035. However, the technology may well be more costly and has not yet been proven on a commercially viable scale.

This research aims to clearly assess the pros and cons of both SAF and ZEA from a whole-economy perspective. It will look both upstream, at the energy and resource requirements of each option, and downstream, at whether these technologies could create new jobs and export opportunities, or could put existing jobs at risk and increase import reliance.

Tackling these questions requires top-down analysis, which is Fathom’s expertise. The study will also identify the practical steps that need to be taken for each pathway to succeed. Key research questions include:

  • What breakthroughs need to occur for SAF and ZEA to become a reality on a commercial scale?
  • How does Europe supply the energy needed for both SAF and ZEA, and what are the economic and security considerations associated with doing so?
  • What are the economic risks and opportunities, taking into account existing European capabilities in energy, fuels and aerospace?
  • Does Europe have the capacity to deploy these solutions fast enough to meet net zero targets? If not, what needs to change for this to happen?
  • How will developments in the American and Chinese aviation markets – from the US SAF Grand Challenge to the emergence of Chinese airframer Comac – affect Europe’s strategic choices on aviation decarbonisation?

We don’t know the answers yet, but by tackling these questions in a structured and methodical way — including through consultation with experts in the fields of energy and aviation — we can deliver a set of clear recommendations to help all aviation stakeholders reach their climate goals in the fastest and fairest way.


Fathom is a world-leading consultancy specialising in the global economy, geopolitics and financial markets. One of our core focuses is climate-related research. We provide clear analysis and advice on the energy transition, and the economics of climate change, to assist policymakers, strategists and investors.

The European Climate Foundation (ECF) is a major philanthropic initiative working to help tackle the climate crisis by fostering the transition to a net-zero emission society at the national, European and global level. We support over 700 partner organisations to carry out activities that drive urgent and ambitious policy in support of the objectives of the Paris Agreement, contribute to the public debate on climate action and help deliver a socially responsible transition to a net-zero economy and sustainable society in Europe and around the world.