The UK has a plan to make aviation net zero, does it add up?

What’s happening? The UK government’s plans to help the domestic aviation industry achieve net zero by 2040 and keep future emissions at pre-Covid levels have been dismissed as a “pure greenwash” and demonstrating an “absolute lack of reality” by climate campaigners. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who unveiled the strategy on the UK’s hottest-ever recorded day, said plans included investing in five plants to manufacture sustainable aviation fuels, which are supposed to account for 10% of jet fuel by 2030. Analysis by the New Economics Foundation said the proposals were “highly misleading” and would cause non-carbon emissions to rise and persist up to 2050. (The Independent)

Why does this matter? Since it’s August, there’s a chance you’re reading this while on your summer holiday, having taken a flight to get there. We know air travel is damaging to the environment, but do plans like the UK’s mean we’ll be able to journey on a guilt-free basis in the future? Sadly, the answer seems to be “no”, at least for now.

Heavy criticism – The UK government’s “Jet Zero” strategy has been widely condemned by environmental campaign groups and experts for missing an opportunity to implement realistic measures to ensure the industry’s decarbonisation. The approach has clashed with advice from reports, including from the government’s own environmental advisor group – the Climate Change Committee (CCC) – and the International Panel on Climate Change.

Specifically, criticism has focused on the fact the strategy shies away from addressing flight demand and airport expansion. Passenger numbers could rise by 70% from 2021 to 2050. Under business as usual this would see the UK’s aviation emissions rise to 52 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2050 from 38 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent measured in 2019.

Shapps stated the government intends for 2019 to remain the peak year for aviation emissions, and so the strategy outlines future tech-focused measures to reduce this demand-fuelled growth in emissions.

The CCC’s 2022 Progress Report, released last month, outlines several gaps in policy within the UK Government’s net-zero strategy, warning of a high likelihood it will under-deliver on several fronts. In terms of the aviation sector, the committee points out the industry lacks policy clarity from the UK government for decarbonisation.

The Jet Zero strategy assumes the sector’s emissions can be brought down significantly by 2050, but this is largely reliant on relatively undeveloped technologies that could take another decade to scale for commercial use and, even then, may not successfully deliver reductions.

Fuelling these plans – To push the development of a domestic sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) industry, funding will go toward five SAF manufacturing plants by 2025 to ensure that lower-carbon fuel will account for 10% of all UK jet fuel use by 2030.

SAF is an alternative to kerosene and can include biofuels, fuels from waste or synthetic fuels made using hydrogen. Denmark’s recent commitment to make all domestic air travel “completely green” by 2030 is also looking to emerging alternatives such as hydrogen fuel.

It’s worth noting, however, that even if aviation transitions to using SAF and achieves net-zero CO2 emissions, the industry could still increase global temperatures by up to 0.4C. This is due to the contrails produced by burning jet fuel, which would still be produced by SAF and which warm the atmosphere.

Alternative routes – Elsewhere, governments have taken a more direct approach, such as in the Netherlands where the authorities recently announced a cap on the number of flights at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to 440,000 every year from the end of next year. Separately, a group of 12 EU airports have agreed to meet the Airport Carbon Accreditation (ACA) standards to achieve the climate targets outlined in the Paris Agreement.

Financial institutions also have a role to play in supporting aviation decarbonisation. A group of banks including Standard Chartered, Bank of America and BNP Paribas recently launched the Aviation Climate-Aligned Finance Working Group, which aims to help lenders assess aviation emissions linked to their loan book and bolster support for low-carbon technology.

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