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Report criticizes UK Jet Zero for failure to restrict flight demand

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The UK Government’s ‘Jet Zero’ strategy for cutting aviation emissions, which includes plans to operate a transatlantic flight fuelled entirely by sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) in 2023, has come under fire from environmental campaigners for relying too heavily on technological solutions that may not materialize fast enough to enable the country to meet its net-zero commitments.

A new report conducted by Element Energy on behalf of the UK-based Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) argues that the Department for Transport’s (DfT) Jet Zero plan is “over-reliant on emerging high-risk technologies”, and that “targeted aviation demand reduction is required to minimize the risk of missing economy-wide emission-reduction targets”.

It concludes that “there should be no airport expansion until and unless it is clear that both in-sector (aircraft technology) and out-of-sector (carbon removal) emissions reductions are on track to meet a fair emissions reduction for 2035 and beyond”.

The report’s publication on 16 May came two days after UK transport secretary Grant Shapps announced plans to deliver “the world’s first transatlantic flight fuelled purely by environmentally-friendly aviation fuel by the end of next year”. The Government is running a competition open to all airlines operating UK-US flights, through which it is inviting initial expressions of interest by 12 June. Up to £1 million ($1.2 million) will then be made available to support testing, research and personnel costs associated with the initiative.

The aim is for the demonstrator flight to run entirely on SAF, although the DfT acknowledges that “current jet fuel specifications do not allow flights to use 100% SAF, meaning SAF use needs to be complemented by additional decarbonization measures to be fully net zero”. The Government also acknowledges that SAF derived from feedstocks such as household waste and used cooking oil offer greenhouse gas emissions savings of around 70% compared with conventional jet fuel, therefore the delivery of a net-zero flight on 100% SAF would also require the use of greenhouse gas removal technology.

SAF is currently certified for use as up to a 50% blend with kerosene, although moves are underway to push that to 100%. Airbus, which recently performed an A380 flight with one of its four Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines running entirely on SAF, said in March that “the aim is to achieve certification of 100% SAF by the end of this decade”. 

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The UK Government says it is “committed to accelerating the testing and approval of 100% SAF to unlock the full decarbonisation potential of this technology”. It is also considering the introduction of a SAF mandate, and is providing £180 million of funding over three years to support the UK’s fledgling SAF industry.

But Cait Hewitt, policy director at AEF, remains unconvinced about the UK’s approach to cutting aviation emissions.

“The Government’s plan is to sit back and allow both airports and emissions to grow in the short term while hoping for future technologies and fuels to save the day,” says Hewitt. She adds that Element Energy’s report “gives a damning appraisal of the level of risk in every aspect of the current approach to aviation emissions and highlights the need for action now, including ruling out airport expansion and limiting demand, to ensure aviation makes a fair contribution to cutting emissions by 2035 and is on a pathway to net zero by 2050”.

In an emailed statement to Runway Girl in response to a request for comment on the Element Energy report, a DfT spokesperson says: “The Government has invested in technology, fuel and market-based measures which will help us reach Jet Zero by 2050 without the need to limit aviation growth. This includes £180 million to accelerate sustainable aviation fuel and £685 million to develop zero-carbon and low-emission aircraft technology.”

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