UK aviation sector sets interim climate goals on road to net-zero by 2050, but won’t cap growth

A coalition representing the UK's major airports, airlines and plane manufacturers has, after publishing a controversial plan for reaching net-zero by 2050 last year, announced new interim climate goals and pledged to refresh its approach to low-carbon technologies.

UK aviation sector sets interim climate goals on road to net-zero by 2050, but won’t cap growth

The coalition represents most of the major businesses across the UK's aviation value chain

The UK Sustainable Aviation coalition published its first roadmap to net-zero by 2050 last year. At the time, green groups were broadly sceptical, because the roadmap did not contain binding interim targets and positioned sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) as the primary solution for the sector – in contrast to the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) recommendations on electric aircraft and capping growth. The CCC’s most optimistic scenario for the national use of SAFs is 7% by 2030.

Today (22 June), the body has set new targets for the industry to reduce absolute net emissions by at least 15% by 2030 and at least 40% by 2040, against a 2019 baseline.

Delivering the 2030 target, the coalition claims, will require a fairly even mix of improving aircraft efficiency while increasing SAF uptake, and investing in carbon removal. On the former, Eurocontrol estimated that SAF accounted for less than 1% of the European aviation sector’s jet fuel consumption in 2019. On the latter, the coalition expects a mix of nature-based solutions and man-made technologies to be used.

SAF, along with other emerging technologies including hydrogen, fully electric and hybrid-electric aircraft will then account for an ever-increasing proportion of the emissions reductions from the early 2040s, the coalition predicts. By 2050, it claims, the sector could be producing some 75% fewer annual emissions than in 2019, with carbon removal available to “net” the residual emissions.

These predictions are all based on a scenario in which the UK Government increasingly supports the coalition’s preferred technologies. The body is hoping for a SAF policy implementation process this year, that will support the launch of at least five SAF plants by 2035; a hydrogen aviation strategy in 2022 and confirmation on long-term funding for the Aerospace Technology Institute, among other policy supports.

Speaking at a virtual event to mark the launch of the new interim targets, UK Sustainable Avitaion chair Adam Morton said that “success cannot be taken for granted” in the coming years, as greater levels of collaboration in the industry and of Government support are needed to go “further, faster and harder on decarbonisation”. Transport Minister Grant Shapps and Energy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng appeared on the call to assure listeners that further policy packages are forthcoming ahead of COP26. 

In terms of which specific technologies will deliver what levels of decarbonisation and when, Morton confirmed that the coalition is planning to publish an updated version of the full roadmap “by this time next year”. He explained that it is “not so much of a complete refresh as a timely update”, to ensure that the impact of Covid-19 on the sector’s ability to invest in new technologies is accounted for, “particularly in the earlier years of the roadmap”.

Morton hinted that man-made carbon removal solutions, electric aircraft and hydrogen aircraft could all receive more detail in the updated version of the roadmap.

International picture

The coalition only covers members from the UK, but, during the virtual event, Morton was keen to emphasise the sector’s willingness to work internationally to scale solutions and to ensure that nations are working to similar climate targets.

From a government perspective, Shapps said: “Our aim is clear – we want Britain to become a centre for the design, manufacture and use of the clean planes of the 21st century, and to seize a share of a global market that could be worth as much as £4trn by 2050.”

Shapps dubbed the UK government’s ‘Jet Zero Council’ the mechanism for “bringing all of this work together”.  The Council is assembling a coalition of Ministers, businesses, trade bodies and environmental groups who will develop policy recommendations for addressing the sector’s finances and environmental impact.   

Shapps also highlighted the importance of COP26 in laying the foundations for the next meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which operates the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), in 2022.

Morton’s panel, consisting of representatives from British Airways, Meggitt, the Airport Operators Association and the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), concurred that it is “very important” that, if the UK leads the transition to low-carbon aviation, “the world is not too far behind”.

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Sarah George

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