TOULOUSE, FRANCE — The transition to hydrogen-fueled airplanes in Europe will necessitate a €300 billion investment and the implementation of a tax on traditional jet fuels, according to a study by a clean energy advocacy group. 

This highlights the enormous challenge policymakers face in promoting green aviation.

Airbus, the world's leading aircraft manufacturer, has set a goal of launching a zero-emission hydrogen-fueled airplane by 2035. However, it has expressed concerns about the pace of infrastructure development required to support this technology.

The research, released by the non-profit organization Transport & Environment on Monday, estimates that the cost of building a hydrogen supply chain in Europe between 2025 and 2050 would reach €299 billion. This figure primarily encompasses the expenses associated with the production, liquefaction, and distribution of green hydrogen.

According to the study, without a tax on kerosene, hydrogen planes would be 8% more costly than jet-fuel-powered aircraft by 2035. However, if a tax were levied on jet fuel and a price put on carbon emissions, hydrogen planes could be 2% cheaper to operate.

The study took into account a carbon price of €127 per tonne of carbon dioxide by 2035. The current carbon price, under the EU's system for trading carbon emission permits, is just below €85 per tonne, having reached a high of just over €100 per tonne in February.

Although a kerosene tax has not yet been introduced, Transport & Environment based its calculations on current proposals from the European Commission, estimating a tax of approximately €0.37 per litre. The current price of jet fuel, which generally mirrors crude oil prices, stands at about €0.55 per litre.

Carlos López de la Osa, aviation technical manager at Transport & Environment, stated, "If we want Airbus to follow through, we need to create a market for zero-emission aircraft by taxing fossil jet fuel and mandating zero-emission planes in the future."

Airbus, on the other hand, asserted that "taxation is not the solution to get there" but stated it was committed to "bringing to market the first hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft by 2035." The company believes that incentives to encourage investment in technologies and infrastructure, along with carbon pricing and market-based measures, offer a more cost-effective path towards reducing aviation emissions.

Aviation remains one of the most challenging industries to decarbonize, partly due to the inadequate advancement of battery technology to power long-distance flights. Hydrogen, produced by separating hydrogen atoms from water molecules, is regarded by policymakers as a key fuel for decarbonizing heavy industries, provided it is produced using renewable power.

The aviation industry has pledged to meet net zero carbon emissions targets through a combination of new fuel technologies, including sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) and hydrogen, and more efficient aircraft, engines, and air traffic management.

While opinions vary on how quickly hydrogen can help decarbonize the industry due to technical obstacles, many aviation experts foresee a rise in the cost of air travel. "Flying in the future will be more expensive. There's no way around it," de la Osa said, adding that "hydrogen aviation will make economic sense as long as we apply the polluter pays principle. Otherwise, the industry will shoot itself in the foot."