Betting on ‘fantasy solutions’: Green groups say Jet Zero Strategy won’t cut aviation’s climate impact
While industry bodies backing alternative fuels have welcomed the UK Government’s new plans for decarbonising the sector, green groups are accusing Ministers of betting too heavily on unproven tech and failing to prepare to reduce demand.
The Department for Transport (DfT) has today published its much-anticipated Jet-Zero Strategy – its plans for aligning the aviation sector with the net-zero targets first outlined in its 2021 Transport Decarbonisation Plan. These are 2040 for airport operations in England and domestic flights in the UK, and 2050 for international flights.
As expected, the Jet-Zero Strategy does not outline measures to cap or reduce passenger numbers – a move recommended by the Government’s own climate advisors but disagreed with by the Conservative Party, especially as the aviation sector is still very much in the Covid-19 recovery phase.
Instead, the DfT is placing heavy bets on the ability of airlines to improve the fuel efficiencies of their planes and to shift to sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs). It targets a 2% improvement in fuel efficiency every year from 2022 and confirms a SAF mandate, requiring all suppliers of fuel to airports to use blends of at least 10% SAFs. A carbon standard will be implemented in a bid to spur the market for the fuels with the lowest footprint.
SAF is popular as it can be dropped in as a fuel replacement, in blends of up to 50%, without changes to engines or to international regulations. It is also more mature a technology than electric and hydrogen planes. Indeed, the Government has consulted with the Sustainable Aviation trade body in producing the Strategy, which is a major SAF advocate.
The organisation’s chairman Matt Gorman – also director of sustainability at Heathrow Airport – said: “With the world’s third-largest aviation network and proud history of aviation innovation, the UK is in a prime position to lead the global transition to a Jet Zero future. Today’s strategy and pledges by Jet Zero Council members are a significant milestone on the path to achieving this ambition, recognising that aviation can grow sustainably, with the right support.
“We are pleased to see a strategy focussed on supporting the technologies that will deliver this ambition. We look forward to working with Government on the commercialisation and scale-up of SAFs in the UK, investment in technology including zero-emission aircraft, delivery of critical airspace modernisation and supporting carbon removal technologies. We hope this will include policy support to quickly deliver a mandate and the right commercial incentives to enable investment in SAF plants here in the UK whilst ensuring the wider technology solutions are developed and implemented.”
But SAF is a fiercely debated technology. The SAF production and use market is in its infancy, and questions abound about the lifecycle impacts of different SAFs. Beyond carbon emissions, there are other greenhouse gases, land use and food security issues to consider.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps claims the Strategy will ensure that 2019 will be the peak year for aviation emissions from the UK. Some sustainability groups are not so sure. Here, edie summarises their reactions.
A statement on Twitter from climate charity Possible reads: “All of the technology solutions in this aviation strategy are a complete fantasy. They’re either extremely expensive, close to physically impossible, demand a ridiculous share of the planet’s limited resources, or wouldn’t actually reduce emissions.
“Electric planes? Batteries make them too heavy to take off. Hydrogen planes? Fuel cells make them too heavy to take off. ‘Sustainable’ aviation fuels? Extremely detrimental to the climate.
“The truth is there is only one method for reducing aviation emissions which we know works: reducing the number of flights. Even the government’s own climate advisers agree – but today the government ignored them in favour of a fantasy of unlimited growth on a finite planet.
“Reducing flights means tackling frequent flying. And we can do that in a way that won’t affect most of us. 15% of people take 70% of all the flights, and half of us don’t fly in any given year. We need a frequent flyer levy.”
Transport & Environment UK’s director Matt Finch said: “The Jet Zero Strategy landed on the same day as the nation melts under record climate-change induced heat. But rather than a pragmatic plan to fully wean the aviation industry off fossil fuels, it allows the sector to carry on polluting with impunity for the next 30 years. Whilst there are some good commitments, it will go down in history as a missed opportunity.
“Whilst the SAF and zero-emission aircraft commitments are very encouraging, the overreliance on greenhouse gas removals will baffle many. Additionally, it effectively ignores two thirds of aviation’s climate problem by not properly addressing the non-CO2 impacts planes cause.”
Green Alliance’s head of climate policy Helena Bennett said: “This Strategy is placing bets on technologies that we aren’t certain can deliver emissions reductions, while allowing for growth in passenger demand and continued expansion of airports.
“The Government had an opportunity to look at managing demand for flights – should technology fail to deliver the emissions savings needed, as the Climate Change Committee (CCC) recommended.
“But this advice has been blatantly ignored by the government, despite acknowledging they received a high volume of responses to their consultation to introduce demand management measures.”
The New Economics Foundation’s senior researcher Alex Chapman said: “At best, this plan will deliver peak carbon emissions in 2019, but with its plan for unlimited air travel growth, non-carbon aviation emissions will rise, and will persist all the way to 2050.
“Drawing a downward slanting line on a piece of paper and crossing your fingers is not a ‘strategy’. Instead of meaningfully reducing the demand for air travel, the government’s plan is to allow unlimited growth in one of the country’s most climate-damaging activities. This is irresponsible and dangerous. The Jet Zero strategy gambles public safety on miracle future technologies as well as risky and expensive carbon offsetting.”
The Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology’s (REA) head of renewable transport fuels Paul Thompson said: “The REA welcomes the ambition shown in the announcements. 10% of jet fuels being produced from low carbon sources by 2030 is a strong statement of intent.
“However, we must maintain momentum, keep up the pressure to ensure policies are delivered, and secure guarantees that the subsequent consultation will not see measures or timings slip. In order to realise the maximum benefits of the policy – such as new production facilities and investment in the UK – further measures will be required. As with much of the Government’s Net Zero strategies, targets must now be backed up with action.”
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