UK aviation commits to net zero carbon emissions – here’s how we’ll do it

Posted On: 
12th February 2020

Airlines are committed to investing heavily in green technology, but need Government support to build the plants and produce sustainable fuel up and down the country, says Tim Alderslade, Chief Executive of Airlines UK. 

"We look forward to working with Government to help realise the opportunities of a thriving and growing aviation sector compatible with the UK’s long-term climate change ambitions", writes Tim Alderslade, Chief Executive of Airlines UK.
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Last week the UK aviation industry committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. This was a huge moment for the sector and means we will now be able to answer the exam question set by Government when they legislated to commit to net zero emissions across the whole economy.

Why was this such an important announcement for us? Because the world is changing and people expect industries like ours to change with it. We know aviation must play its full part in helping the UK deliver a net zero future, and it’s essential we do so to enable our sector to prosper and meet growing passenger demand.

It is not credible for us to leave the hard work of decarbonising to other sectors and Ministers – quite rightly – would not tolerate such a scenario.

It is wrong – however – to say you can’t be both for the environment and aviation. The enemy is carbon, not air travel. Huge progress has already been made – for example, between 2010 and 2016 passenger numbers in the UK grew by more than 25%, while total emissions only grew by under 5%. Overall, emissions continue to be below 2005 levels.

But we must go further and faster, as we know that if we try to meet expected demand from passengers without taking decisive action, carbon emissions from UK aviation would rise to 71 megatonnes by 2050 - approximately equivalent to what all the cars on the UK’s road emit each year today.

The Sustainable Aviation Decarbonisation Road-Map, published last week, shows how we can accommodate a 70% increase in passengers by 2050 whilst reducing net emissions from today’s levels of just above 30 megatonnes of carbon per year to zero. This is through a combination of measures, each of which will require a partnership approach between industry and Government to achieve.

As UK airlines we have the most important role to play because we are the largest emitters. That’s why we are committed to spending billions through carbon pricing – via the existing EU Emissions Trading Scheme and, from next year, the UN-backed CORSIA scheme, which will deliver carbon neutral growth for the whole of international aviation up to 2035.

Through CORSIA, UK airlines will fund carbon reduction through high-quality carbon offsets, all the while being incentivised to reduce emissions ‘at source’ through the effective functioning of the carbon market, which places an extra cost on the carbon that is generated. CORSIA alone will mitigate around 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon and generate over 40 billion dollars for climate projects between 2021 and 2035. 

Moreover, we want to go further, which is why UK Government will have our support in seeking a more robust international commitment for aviation carbon reduction at the next ICAO Assembly in 2022, for when CORSIA ends in 2035, which is consistent with the Paris Agreement’s target to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.

In the here and now, the deployment of sustainable aviation fuels at commercial scale must play an essential role in helping deliver aviation decarbonisation over the next decade. Critically, these fuels exist today, work in existing gas-turbine engines and with the right policy support could reduce UK aviation emissions in 2050 by at least 30% whilst making the UK a world-leader in the technology.

Consequently, the upcoming Budget represents a huge opportunity to kick-start a UK sustainable fuels industry, delivering thousands of jobs, and helping deliver the UK’s strategic decarbonisation priorities. Airlines are committed to investing heavily in the technology, but there needs to be Government support for what remains a new industry to get the plants built and producing sustainable fuel up and down the country.  Support of just £100m a year for five years would have a transformational effect on UK aviation, and help kick-start a multi-billion-pound green-economy sector. 

Of course, running alongside support for sustainable fuels must be a renewed focus on the technologies of the future. Aerospace manufacturers are already investing in the latest cutting-edge technology including the exciting prospect of hybrid electric and fully electric aircraft. Alongside upgrades to aircraft already in operation we believe further emissions reductions of 24% are achievable through technology alone, and we hope the Government will continue to support aerospace R&D through the Aerospace Growth Partnership, and accelerate the pace pf technology development through increased investment in the Aerospace Technology Institute.

Net zero aviation will not happen overnight and it is not the sole responsibility of any one part of the sector or Government. We will all need to play our part. But net zero by 2050 is achievable and a credible and realistic target to reach for. We look forward to working with Government to help realise the opportunities of a thriving and growing aviation sector compatible with the UK’s long-term climate change ambitions.