This is a sponsored post by Airlines UK, co-authored by Tim Alderslade, CEO Airlines UK, and Paul Holmes MP.
This is a critical year for our world-class aviation sector. Whilst carbon emissions from UK aviation account for only around seven per cent of the UK’s total – substantially less than road transport and comparable to shipping – aviation is at risk of becoming one of the poster boys for the climate crisis if it is not careful.
Earlier this year, UK aviation took an important step forward in challenging this perception. Collectively, the UK’s airlines and airports, as well as aerospace manufacturers and air service navigation providers, came together to commit to delivering net zero carbon emissions by 2050, whilst continuing to meet passenger and freight demand and helping to deliver the UK’s economic objectives as a global trading nation in a post-Brexit world.
This is an unprecedented commitment by any national aviation sector anywhere in the world, and is a clear signal that the UK aviation sector recognises that it can only grow if it is accompanied by rapid decarbonisation.
Why does this matter? Because we simply cannot afford to dismiss aviation as a lost cause. Today nearly 400 international destinations are served by routes from the UK, the third largest market in the world. In total, some 4.5 percent of the country’s GDP is supported by our air transport sector, supporting over 1.6 million UK jobs. Just over half of Brits took to the skies last year, and we know that people want to be able to go on holiday and visit family and friends – they just want to be able to do it better, knowing that the sector is acting responsibly to cut its environmental impact.
But what does net zero aviation mean in practice, and how will it be delivered? Importantly, aviation is not starting from scratch. It might surprise some but emissions from UK aviation have remained level in recent years despite a 25 per cent rise in passenger numbers – the result of airline investment totalling tens of billions of pounds in hundreds of new, cleaner aircraft type.
This is only the start. UK aviation today plans to deliver an absolute reduction in carbon emissions – i.e. emissions from source – to below the level recommended by the Committee on Climate Change in their latest advice to Government on how the country can meet net zero. It will then use measures to remove CO2 from the atmosphere to offset remaining emissions, and deliver net zero aviation. This would mean that UK aviation plays its full part in in helping the UK deliver its contribution to the global goal of restricting temperature rises to no more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels by 2050.
How can this be delivered? There is no silver bullet. The industry has set out a plan that shows how improvements in technology – starting with delivering the latest engine technology, but including the introduction of hybrid and then electric aircraft – can save around 23.5Mt of carbon by 2050. This exciting future is becoming a reality, with EasyJet, for example, in a partnership with US company Wright Electric, aiming to develop a 186-seat electric aircraft by 2030.
Alongside this, the up-scaled and fully commercialised use of sustainable aviation fuels has the potential to reduce UK emissions in 2050 by at least a further 30 per cent, saving 14.4Mt of CO₂. British Airways has plans to open a fuels plant in Immingham, North East Lincolnshire, which will turn hundreds of thousands of tonnes of post-recycling waste destined for landfill into over 60 million litres of clean burning sustainable jet and road fuel per year. Virgin Atlantic are working with the company LanzaTech to develop a novel carbon capture and utilisation approach, which recycles waste carbon-rich gases from heavy industries into jet fuel, and aims to provide all Virgin Atlantic’s fuel out of the UK as a 50:50 blend, with 70 per cent CO2 savings.
Modernising our airspace, which will cut delays and eliminate the need for wasteful stacking and re-routing, can save a further 3.1Mt.
Finally, robust carbon offsets and investment in innovative carbon removal solutions will then address residual UK aviation emissions, building on the UN-backed global offsetting scheme for aviation, CORSIA, which starts in earnest next year and delivers carbon neutral growth for all of international aviation.
This is a credible and deliverable plan for aviation, and one that promises not only carbon savings, but allows for the sector to meet expected demand growth, competing internationally and delivering huge advantages to the whole of the UK, as a leader in the global green economy. Taking sustainable aviation fuels as an example, there is potential for up to 14 fuel plants operating in the UK by 2035, most built in regions outside the South East. This would create thousands of new skilled jobs and be a boon to this Government’s levelling-up agenda.
However, this exciting future cannot happen without a renewed partnership between government and industry, whereby investment by the sector is supported by smart policies and genuine vision. This means UK Government pushing ahead and completing vital airspace modernisation. It means supporting the uptake of sustainable aviation fuels through matched public/private funding to support commercial plants built in the early 2020s, alongside reforms to incentives to put sustainable fuels on a competitive footing. It means supporting aerospace research and development through the Aerospace Growth Partnership and increasing investment in the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), delivering the hybrid and electric aircraft of the future, sooner. The UK Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) has funded 260 projects with a grant value of £1.3 billion up to the end of October 2019.
It also means recognising that blunt instruments like higher taxation, making air travel less accessible to families and making it even harder for UK carriers (who already pay the highest aviation taxes in the world through Air Passenger Duty) to invest in new technology, carbon credits and alternative fuel sources – are not the way to go.
The upcoming Budget – and COP 26 later this year – is a real opportunity to signal through support for innovation a positive vision for UK aviation, rather than one in which we accept the false premise that only by making our aviation sector less competitive can we address the climate challenge. We can do better, and we must.