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Can UK aviation really meet its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050?

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A commitment by the UK’s aviation industry to cut its carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 while adding 70% more passengers has been met with skepticism by environmental campaigners. They are concerned that without government legislation to ensure the plan is delivered, emissions from the sector will continue to soar.

Sustainable Aviation, a coalition of UK-based airlines, airports, manufacturers and air navigation service providers, this week unveiled a decarbonization roadmap which details how it believes the country’s aviation industry can reduce net emissions from 30 million tonnes of CO2 a year today to zero within three decades.

It envisages that these reductions will be achieved through a combination of smarter flight operations, new aircraft and engine technology, the modernization of UK airspace, greater use of sustainable aviation fuels, and market-based measures, such as carbon offsetting. The industry coalition also expresses optimism over the potential for carbon capture and storage technology “to be deployed alongside fuels production, increasing overall carbon reductions significantly”.

But all of these ambitions come with a heavy caveat: the industry wants support from the UK government to help it deliver on its promises. So far it is unclear to what extent, if any, such support might be provided.

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Tim Johnson, director of the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF), tells RGN he believes the industry has set “the right target”, but says that “at the moment, it’s a heavily conditional commitment” and “a gamble” on technology that has yet to be proven at scale. The AEF is calling on the UK government to “hold the industry to account” and make sure it delivers on its net-zero commitment.

While the government has legislated for the UK as a whole to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, that target excludes emissions from international aviation and shipping. The UK Climate Change Commission (CCC) – the independent body charged with advising the government on how to build a low-carbon economy – has made a number of recommendations on how international aviation emissions could be formally included.

These recommendations make it clear that zero-carbon aviation is “highly unlikely to be feasible by 2050”. Aviation emissions “could be reduced by around 20% from today to 2050 through improvements to fuel efficiency, some use of sustainable biofuels, and by limiting demand growth to, at most, 25% above current levels”, says the CCC.

It does not envision more than a 10% uptake of sustainable aviation fuel by 2050, noting that it is “not appropriate to plan for higher levels of uptake at this stage, given the range of competing potential uses for biomass across the economy”.

The CCC’s figures on demand growth and sustainable fuel use differ from those set out by Sustainable Aviation, which envisages a net-zero future based on 70% more passengers and a 32% sustainable fuel uptake. To achieve this level of uptake, the coalition is calling on the government to deliver “matched public/private funding of £500 million ($647 million) over five years (totaling £1 billion) to support flagship first-of-a-kind commercial [sustainable aviation fuel] plants”.

By laying out a detailed roadmap on how the UK’s aviation sector could get to net zero, but making it conditional on state support, the industry has whacked the ball firmly into the government’s court. It will now be a case of waiting to see whether the ball is kept in play or left to go out.

The fact that the UK government is hosting the 2020 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow this November – and will want to be seen by the world as a being a climate change leader – could provide a glimmer of hope for the aviation industry that it will provide some of the support it is seeking.

But environmental campaigners who believe the only way to cut aviation emissions is to fly less will be hoping it goes the other way and legislates to limit demand for air travel.

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