Investment to decarbonise aviation must be ‘supercharged’ in Covid-19 recovery plans, MPs urge

A geographical distribution map will identify 300 SAF plants strategically placed to maximise sustainable feedstock potential

In a letter sent to Chancellor Rishi Sunak late last week, the group of MPs, coordinated by the All-Party Parliamentary Group of Sustainable Aviation, lay out the benefits of creating a £500m pot for low-carbon fuels as part of the UK’s overall £160bn recovery plan.

Such investment would be matched by the industry and, within 15 years, generate £2.7bn for the national economy while supporting 19,000 jobs, the letter claims. The jobs figure accounts for a mixture of new roles and those which currently exist, but are at risk due to the pandemic.

The letter describes sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), typically made using bio-based feedstocks or recycled feedstocks, as a “here-and-now technology” in which the UK is “already leading the world in early-stage projects”.

Planning permission was notably granted this year for the UK’s first commercial-scale waste-to-jet-fuel plant, backed by British Airways, American Airlines and Shell. Construction is slated to begin in 2022, meaning full-scale operational capacity will be working by 2025.  

Given that SAF is not an inherently zero-carbon solution and that it is not without its controversies, the letter also urges increased funding for the Aerospace Technology Institute, to be earmarked for the development of more efficient planes, hybrid aircraft and fully electric aircraft. A specific cost-benefit analysis for these technologies, however, is not provided. The Conservative Party

“Decarbonising aviation provides an opportunity for the UK to take a lead in this important global sector, and the sector is ready to work with Government to make this happen,” the letter states. “Decisive action today will support not only a sustainable and world-leading UK aviation sector, but fuel a great British green recovery.”

It adds that a green recovery for the aviation sector would “futureproof” it against further shocks for “years to come”, in addition to the multitude of short-term benefits.

The letter has received support from all major political parties, including the Tories, Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems and the DUP.

Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye added: “Covid-19 has given us a clear opportunity to accelerate this change as we look for new ways to rebuild our economy. Sustainable aviation fuels are a clear winner.”

A flying start?

Last month, the Government announced that it was in the process of creating a ‘Jet-Zero Council’ – a coalition of Ministers, businesses, trade bodies and environmental groups who will collaboratively work to align the aviation sector with the 2050 net-zero target.

The move built on the UK Sustainable Aviation Coalition’s recently published roadmap for net-zero alignment. Despite being backed by swathes of big businesses across the aviation sector and welcomed as a first step, green groups, climate analysts and green campaigners have taken issue with the fact that the roadmap relies almost solely on SAF and predicts extensive growth in passenger numbers. Critics have said that a greater focus on electric aircraft and a willingness to align with the Committee on Climate Change’s recommended cap on growth would have made the roadmap more credible.

Aviation is only responsible for 3% of global annual greenhouse gas emissions but is regarded as hard-to-abate and, pre-pandemic, was one of the world’s fastest-growing sectors in terms of user numbers and emissions. Emissions from the sector are estimated to have increased by 76% between 1990 and 2012.

The pandemic has brought fresh challenges to airlines, airports and travel agencies seeking to grapple with climate challenges. Since March, monthly passenger numbers globally have been down by up to 95% globally year-on-year. As a result, thousands of job cuts have been announced and businesses have been scrambling to claim bail-out packages. Green groups have been urging the Department for Transport (DfT) to attach stronger green strings to such packages, but their calls were not taken into account for the multi-billion-pound packages handed to easyJet and Virgin.

Sarah George

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