Airports in the UK should not be allowed to expand until a capacity-management framework is put in place, the government’s official climate change advisors have suggested in a new report which also criticizes the country’s “high risk” Jet Zero strategy for relying too heavily on nascent technologies.
In its latest progress report to the UK Parliament on the country’s efforts to reduce emissions, published on 28 June, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) says the UK has “lost its clear global leadership position on climate action” and must accelerate policies designed to meet its net zero target.
One of the sectors singled out in the report is aviation, which the CCC claims was responsible for 7% of the UK’s emissions in 2022. Despite the committee’s earlier recommendation that there should be no net expansion of UK airports, the report says airports across the country have increased capacity, and continue to put forward expansion proposals.
“This is incompatible with the UK’s net zero target, unless aviation’s carbon intensity is outperforming the government’s pathway and can accommodate this additional demand,” says the CCC, adding that “no airport expansions should proceed until a UK-wide capacity-management framework is in place to annually assess and, if required, control sector CO2 emissions and non-CO2 effects”.
The Airport Operators Association (AOA), a trade group representing UK airports, disagrees with the CCC’s recommendation on airport expansion.
“The aviation industry and the UK government both have a plan in place for UK aviation to achieve net zero by 2050 while still accommodating growth in air travel in that same time frame,” says AOA chief executive Karen Dee. “Banning airport expansion now, in the way suggested, would damage the UK’s economic future and deter investment from the UK.”
Dee adds that, “rather than focusing on preventing people [from] flying”, policies should be developed to modernize airspace and support the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and deployment of hydrogen and electric flight.
But in its report, the CCC describes demand management as “the most effective way” to reduce aviation emissions, and advises the government to develop “a suite of policy and technology options to address aviation demand”, such as providing cheaper domestic rail travel.
The UK’s Jet Zero strategy, which aims to use technology to compensate for increased emissions from a proposed 70% growth in passenger numbers by 2050 versus 2018 levels, carries “considerable risks” because of its heavy reliance on “nascent technology” — specifically the rapid uptake of SAF, says the CCC.
SAF represented 0.22% of the aviation fuel supply in 2022, notes the report — a long way off the government’s “ambitious” target of 10% by 2030. The CCC sees 2% by 2030 as a more realistic target.
“The government does not have a policy framework in place to ensure that emissions reductions in the aviation sector occur if these technologies are not delivered on time and at sufficient scale,” it adds.
Responding to the points raised by the CCC in its report, a spokesperson for the UK Department for Transport says: “Our Jet Zero strategy sets out how we can achieve net zero by 2050 without limiting growth, by focusing on a rapid uptake of new fuels and technology.
“We’re committed to being a world leader on sustainable aviation fuels, introducing a mandate in 2025 to drive demand and kick-starting production in the UK through our £165 million [$209 million] Advanced Fuels Fund.”
UK-based campaign group Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) has welcomed the CCC’s report and agrees with its recommendations.
“We can’t sit back and wait to see if these magic planes will appear on the market while building in expansions that will allow for more and more fossil-powered flying,” says AEF policy director Cait Hewitt. “The government needs to stop giving in to the aviation industry’s insatiable demands for growth and recognize that in a climate emergency all sectors of the economy need to start doing things differently.”
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Featured image credited to John Walton